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The European Semester, introduced in 2011, is the annual cycle of policy coordination between the European Commission and EU Member States. In 2014 ESN formed a Reference Group to provide input from local social services in the Semester, and bring social issues to prominence. In Brussels on 11 September 2017 ESN held the fourth meeting of the Reference Group, bringing together officials from the European Commission with representatives of local public social services.

A more social perspective is needed in the European Semester

According to Jeroen Jutte, head of the unit for employment and social aspects of the European Semester in the European Commission, the proportion of Country-Specific Recommendations (CSRs) addressing social and employment issues has remained stable over the past few years. However, members of the Reference Group emphasised that some countries lack CSRs that adequately address social issues. For example, no social CSR was issued for Denmark, neglecting any social priorities within the country.

Moreover, about 40% of social CSRs concern employment or skills and education. From 2014 to 2017, ESN has been calling for a broader view of social inclusion beyond employment.

The Reference Group also criticised the inadequacy of the CSRs, which often approach problems from a purely economic perspective or fail to recognise some of the nuances within an issue. For example, the Irish contributors stated that the CSR for Ireland on social housing would benefit from a more integrated approach. They suggested it should not just be limited to the provision of social housing, but also to the wider range of support services that can accompany it.

More involvement of local authorities is required

Another central theme from 2014 to 2017 highlighted by ESN has been the lack of recognition of local and regional authorities within the European Semester, who are often ultimately responsible for the implementation of policies. This continues to be an issue, and greater engagement and involvement of the local level is necessary. The Reference Group even made the suggestion that some CSRs could be specifically formulated to target local level authorities as part of this engagement process.

The European Pillar of Social Rights is a new opportunity to enhance the social dimension of the European Semester

The proposed EPSR featured prominently during discussions at the meeting. Jeroen Jutte and Istvan Vanyolos from the European Commission explained that the principles enshrined within the EPSR will largely be implemented through the European Semester. The EPSR therefore represents a significant opportunity to elevate social issues, and to socialise the European Semester.

Going forward, the Reference Group insisted that it will be important for all EU member states to share a common understanding of the principles of the EPSR. The Reference Group also reiterated ESN’s key messages set out in ‘Towards a People’s Europe – European Social Network response to the Consultation on the European Pillar of Social Rights’, which called for recognition of local authorities’ duty of care to individuals across the life-cycle, and that social rights should apply to all people, not just those in employment.

From 2014 to 2017, ESN’s Reference Group on the European Semester has provided valuable insights into social issues and challenges experienced at the local level. However, it is clear that more could be done to connect the European Commission with social services at local authorities. In future Semester cycles, ESN hopes that assessing the implementation of some of the EPSR principles will raise the importance of the social dimension and widen recommendations beyond employment. Later this Autumn, ESN will publish its 2017 European Semester report, which will provide evidence-based analysis of the challenges faced by social services to the European Commission as it prepares the 2018 Semester cycle.