Social Europe: a pipedream?

While Europe is consolidating its economic area with various treaties and directives, European social convergence seems to have become a dead letter. Régine Prunzel, an expert in European labour law, published a thesis proving that all the cogs of the European social machinery are in place. The machine just needs to be set in motion.

Régine Prunzel: «Les États membres doivent comprendre que seul le pilier social peut limiter les effets pervers induits par le développement de la dimension économique.» © Shutterstock "Member States must be made to understand that only the social pillar can limit the perverse effects of developing the economic dimension." Régine Prunzel

You say that the European social model is merely a chimera. Why?

The European Union’s Social Agenda and an array of related actions show that many initiatives do exist. However, just like the mythical chimera, a creature created from parts of different animals, the European social model is a hotchpotch that defies definition, in spite of attempts to characterise it into different scientific disciplines. The founding ideas underpinning the European social model are an assortment of different national models. So, when people refer to it, they each have in mind the rules and principles governing their own national system. This makes common ground for discussion impossible, as each of the participants is talking about a different reality.

A chimera is also a fantasy, an unworkable idea. Member States take the same position when they claim that the legal foundations for establishing a social pillar in Europe are lacking, even though my study proves that they do exist. But many Member States are afraid of being penalised by European labour legislation, especially regarding collective labour relations, an eminently domestic area of jurisdiction where there are wide differences between countries. For example, the Member States blocked Directive 96/34/EC on parental leave for years before action by the social partners finally allowed it to come into force.

Does the social model actually exist?

Yes and no. In a sense, the European Union is very active in the social field. The Lisbon process even identifies it as one of the three cornerstones of the EU’s future development, alongside employment and the economy. This is a huge step forward because in the past labour matters have always been treated as a secondary issue linked with the economy. For instance, when borders were opened up, the terms for cross-border working had to be regulated.

This brings us to the key problem with the European social model. Its development lags far behind the economic dimension. This imbalance can be explained not only by the very origins of the European Union itself and the reluctance of Member States, but also by the difficulty in measuring the development of the social dimension, compared with economic performance, which can easily be assessed using indicators such as the unemployment rate or GNP (gross national product). It is impossible to make such an accurate and unequivocal assessment of the social dimension.

How can the social dimension be regulated without jeopardising national sovereignty over collective labour relations? Aren’t labour matters and employment fundamentally linked?

Yes, they are. But having a European social policy does not mean standardising social systems, which include national prerogatives such as social security and unemployment benefits and which diverge greatly from one country to another. Harmonising them would be highly inadvisable, very difficult to implement and liable to have many adverse effects. On the other hand, Member States could agree on arrangements such as a minimum wage to counter the unfavourable effects of the priority given to the economic dimension. This would make a company like Nokia less tempted to transfer an entire production unit from Germany to Romania to take advantage of lower wages – as it has already done. This is catastrophic for the countries of Northern Europe, where manpower is more expensive because social systems tend to be more sophisticated. The same goes for the new Member States, where most skilled workers are migrating to Northern Europe to increase their earning power.

Member States must be made to understand that only the social pillar can limit the perverse effects of developing the economic dimension. Health, education, anti-discrimination, industrial relations, equal opportunities, social protection, social dialogue and the fight against exclusion … all are social policy fields where Community action would be appropriate. Competition is of course necessary and even desirable, but only under comparable conditions.

Although it is impossible to turn the clock back, we can move forward in a new direction, along a path that leads to a truly social Europe. Social policy should be considered not merely as a factor of production but as a worthwhile value in its own right. My thesis therefore puts forward a new approach: European social consensus. It is a draft road map that allows a system to be set up on the basis of existing treaties that will lead to the sustainable development of social Europe.

How would it work?

It would be introduced in three phases. The first phase would be to establish a framework and the main working concepts in the form of an agreement between the Member States in the European Council. In phase two, the lead would be taken by the European Commission, which would be responsible for defining the procedures and instruments needed for establishing the social dimension while taking into account the existing legal basis and respective areas of jurisdiction. The third phase would be to put into practice the actions agreed at the European Council. All the parties concerned (trade unions, lobbying organisations, NGOs, etc.) would be involved at this final stage of the proceedings.

Why a top-down approach for a matter so fundamentally linked with individuals?

Only the Council has the power to initiate the large-scale policy changes need to promote the European social dimension. Social problems always arise at the national level. Member States are the first to detect them and are in a position to find solutions at a very early stage.

A top-down approach also makes it possible to channel the influence of the Brussels lobbying organisations. Their role would be downstream of decision-making, at the final, most binding, phase of consensus. It is useful to point out that consensus does not negate the European Commission’s role as a driver of European integration because it would be involved as from phase two and could also intervene in phase one to provide the Council with decision-making support by compiling existing social regulations. Consensus tackles the problems in terms of responsibilities. And in labour matters, it is heads of government who are responsible.

The advantages of this new approach are obvious. It would firmly reinforce the legal basis of a Europe that successfully balances its social and economic dimensions, which is the only way to bridge the existing divide between European institutions and citizens. And to achieve this objective, all that is needed is the political will.

Interview by Julie Van Rossom


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The Commission and European labour law

Does the European Commission itself comply with the European Union labour regulations imposed on the Member States? According to a study commissioned by the Union of European Civil Servants (CONF-SFE) published in 2007, the way in which the largest employer of the European institutions is making use of contract staff (known as ‘contract agents’) is often in direct contradiction with European labour law. Contract agents may be recruited under a fixed-term contract to provide backup for permanent staff during periods where there is a heavy workload or in response to a shortage of skilled personnel.

However, the Commission would appear to be employing contract agents to carry out permanent tasks that should normally be reserved for officials. Although they do exactly the same work as their permanent staff colleagues, contract agents are paid much less than Commission officials, with salaries of up to 50% less. It would seem, then, that employment security and equal pay regulations are being ignored by the very institution that champions these two fundamental principles of labour law.

“For budgetary reasons, the European Commission is itself flouting the principles enshrined in the European framework agreement of 1999 governing fixed-term working. It is an unacceptable situation,” says Roger Blanpain, professor of labour law at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (BE) and author of the study. In response, the Commission points out that numerous contract agents (about 2 300 in late 2007) who carry out secondary tasks (such as mail distribution) end up being offered an indefinite contract.

The Commission acknowledges that most contract agents (3 200 in late 2007, i.e. 15% of the total staff) are hired for a maximum of three years, but justifies this by the need for the Commission to continue operating when there is not enough qualified permanent staff available.


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