Good morning ladies and gentlemen;

I am very pleased to be with you, once again, for our annual gathering to discuss how to achieve inclusive growth together.

When we met last year, at the first Convention for Inclusive Growth, I set out the social agenda of the Commission, including our vision and plans for a European Pillar of Social Rights.

I explained that our work builds on the view that there is a social perspective to all policy fields. And that properly taking account of it is necessary to build a sustainable, and a fair society and economy.

And it was in this context that the floor was opened to you, and in the meeting and in the following months:

- You helped bring the voices of people who are not usually heard loudly enough into the common discussion

- and brought the grassroots level and everyday life to the heart of the European debate.

For this, for enriching the debate and also for being here today - I would like to take the opportunity and thank you.

Indeed, the cornerstone of the European Union’s success as a political, economic and social project has been its founding principle: that European integration should bring social progress and real benefits for people; that economic growth and social progress go hand in hand.

The European social model and its values are a part of our identity but also a success story: the EU is today the largest economy in the world and its citizens enjoy very high living standards.

Yes, the crisis hit Europe and its people hard. But we are seeing the end of the tunnel:

- 2017 is the first year since 2008 when ALL EU economies are expected to grow;
- Investment is picking up – although at a slow pace; and
- Employment in the EU reached 232 million people in 2016, the highest number ever measured - while unemployment continues to decrease.

Our social model has effectively contributed to the prosperity and the progress of our societies: addressing inequalities and social disadvantage; opening up opportunities for all to participate in society; helping people overcome difficulties and stabilising the economy.

However, there is no room for complacency. While Europe is one of the more prosperous regions in the world- with well-developed social models- still one in four Europeans is at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

Europe is off-track on reaching its 2020 target on reducing poverty: nearly 30% of our young people (15-29) live at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

And Inequality is rising: across the EU, the incomes of the richest 20% are on average more than 5 times higher than those of the poorest 20%. In the most unequal Member States, this gap has grown to 7 or even 8 times.

 

In this context, the public debate on the European Pillar of Social Rights that we launched last year reaffirmed the strong and shared commitment to Social Europe. But it also highlighted where action is needed to make sure that the European Social model is fit for purpose for today and tomorrow; that it enables our societies to embrace the opportunities and withstand the challenges ahead of us.

Now, one year on, having listened to the vast array of opinions expressed: from civil society, social partners, local authorities, Member States and many more; we are ready to bring forward our proposal for a European Pillar of Social Rights in two days' time.

The European Pillar of Social Rights is about building on the vast body of social principles and rights we have– about making sure the rules are fully implemented and translated to the needs of today’s economies and societies; so that all citizens can share the benefits of growth and development.

With the Pillar of Social Rights, we will strive for a stronger European Social Model and for an inclusive and resilient social market economy. The 20 principles and rights enshrined in the Pillar are structured around three key objectives:

-equal opportunities and access to the labour market,
-fair working conditions and
-social protection and inclusion.

A good and sustainable future for all is the red thread of our proposal. Our focus is on enabling and empowering people so that they can have a good start in life; overcome difficulties; and live up to their full potential.

Participating Member States, social partners, and civil society at large, shall work together towards fairer, more inclusive labour markets and societies. Delivering on these principles and rights is a joint responsibility.

In this context, our proposal for the Pillar caters both for

- enhanced competitiveness and sustainable growth and

- for more and better opportunities and stronger safety nets for individuals.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Fighting inequalities is in fact one of the strongest priorities of the Pillar.

Life in Europe offers a lot of opportunities.

But we need to ensure these opportunities are accessible to all, recognising that not everyone starts with equal chances.

Equal opportunities require active measures to support the most vulnerable.

And it is possibly needless to say, but today’s agenda - youth - has a particular role in the future of Social Europe.

We all know that young people were particularly hard-hit during the economic crisis: and I am not referring only to the unacceptably high youth unemployment.

Social investment- for instance in education and training, or care services- is a lever for equal opportunities, breaking the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. However, in many Member States the levels of social investment have significantly gone down since the beginning of the crisis.

All these give rise to new inter- and intra-generational inequalities.

 

So let me reassure you that the Pillar will cover a wide spectrum of rights and principles, fostering an integrated approach; from the right to continuous and inclusive quality education to equal treatment, inclusion of people with disabilities and access to childcare and essential services.

But we will also look into the employment conditions and access to social protection for the most vulnerable groups in our labour markets.

And the young are over-represented in these groups.

You see that the Pillar will not only be words. It will be underpinned by concrete actions: 

o   We will be consulting the Social Partners on a revision of the Written Statement Directive: so that workers and employers, irrespective of the type of contract, have clarity on the essential elements of their contractual relationship. I am thinking there in particular also of many young people working as free-lancers for example for digital platforms.

 o   We will also be consulting Social Partners on  an initiative on access to social protection: While different ways of working are flourishing, we have to ensure that everyone is covered – and contributes to - social protection. This means we need to have a wide safety net to catch people as they transit through job and status changes in their lifecycle.

The social inclusion challenges that these two initiatives aim to address will be at the heart of your discussions later today on Intergenerational fairness and combatting youth poverty.

o   And of course, our Work-Life Balance initiative: One of today's workshops will discuss how policies can prevent a cycle of disadvantage and ensure that children receive extra assistance so that they do not get left behind. This is not just about fairness: it is about giving children the beginning they deserve.

One important policy that will be discussed in that workshop is work/life balance. It aims, not only, at increasing the employment of women and reducing poverty through work, but also at giving both parents more equal chances to participate to family life and caring tasks.

Taken together, these initiatives- legislative and non-legislative- should pave the way for more secure transitions, with a life-cycle perspective; more inclusive labour markets; and more affordable and quality formal care services.

 

The Pillar will complement and strengthen the impact of initiatives we have already deployed.

- Youth Guarantee/ Youth Employment Initiative

First of all, with the Youth Guarantee and the Youth Employment Initiative. Since their launch in 2013, the Youth Guarantee and the Youth Employment Initiative have proved their worth: youth unemployment has now decreased from a peak of 24% in January 2013 to 17.7% in January 2017. Around 10 million young people took up an offer under the Youth Guarantee, of which the majority were job offers.

Given this progress, the Commission has proposed to extend the budget resources of the Youth Employment Initiative. This extra investment will make it possible to support more than 1 million more young people until 2020 in the Member States most affected by youth unemployment.

We also launched in December, the EU Solidarity Corps, offering young people the opportunity to work or volunteer whilst putting solidarity to practice in the face of urgent social challenges.

Three months later, over 26,000 people have already registered; 248 organisations have used the online portal; well over 2,000 young people have been contacted and the first placement offers made. Occupational placements will start as of June 2017.

Indeed, creating more and better opportunities for young people is essential if we are to enable them to reach their potential, and fully participate in and contribute to society.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

To conclude, please allow me to take a look at our longer term future.

Now more than ever, our reflections on social issues are inextricably linked to the debate on the future of Europe: what we stand for and what we aim to achieve for ourselves, for future generations and for our Union.

The White Paper on the Future of Europe discussed in Rome last month says that while "Europe gets to grips with a profound digitisation of society", capitalising on these new opportunities will "call for the roll-out of new social rights to accompany the changing world of work."

In two days' time, the Commission will put forward a Reflection Paper on the Social dimension of Europe, as announced in the White Paper on the future of Europe.

This will be the first of a set of reflection papers. Others will be presented before summer - namely on the future of EMU, harnessing globalisation, defence and the EU budget. And there are obvious links between those papers.

As we reflect on the future of our Union, we need to look at the 'bigger social picture': Will we continue as we are in the social sphere? Or should we do more? Or maybe less? And what shape do our societies need to take in order to face the long-term challenges, such as globalisation, population ageing and changing work patterns?

The purpose is to look forward together. To collectively define and give meaning to a social dimension for Europe that builds on what we have and is fit for the realities of the 21st century.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, when we think of the future we want for Europe, we all agree that it should be one that is truly inclusive of all people. Because participation is a precondition to access and enjoy your rights.

For me, an inclusive Europe is one that empowers and enables everybody to contribute fully and to help shape their destiny.

The challenges that lie ahead are great but I am convinced that together we can stand above them and shape our future together; we owe it to ourselves and the generations who will follow. 

As our partners, I call upon you to continue contributing with expertise to the discussion on the future of Europe. Personally, I also count on your involvement and support to make the launch of the Pillar of Social Rights a success, and to ensure its proper implementation. Thank you