Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome you here today and indeed to kick off this first Convention for Inclusive Growth. I would also like to thank my Services for their excellent work in organising this Convention.

The Convention represents a firm commitment, on our part in the European Commission to reconnect policymaking at European level with your expertise and your work as civil society organisations.

The Convention signals also the new approach of this Commission to civil dialogue. By putting "Inclusive growth" at the forefront it highlights the importance of strengthening the social dimension of the EU in all its facets - by fighting poverty; by building societies that are more cohesive; by modernising social protection and promoting social investment; or by improving employment opportunities and activation.

This new approach builds on the lessons learnt to develop a flexible and output‑oriented structure; our ambition for this Convention is to foster a greater engagement and deeper dialogue with all stakeholders active in social and employment issues.

Our aim is to make this dialogue more effective in working towards the Europe2020 targets for poverty and employment. We want a stronger, impact- oriented social Open Method of Coordination. We need to ensure that social is properly taken up in the European Semester.

Indeed, one of the main objectives of this Commission, as set by President Jean-Claude Juncker, is to create a Europe worthy of a ‘Social Triple A’.

Some of you are asking what a ‘Social Triple A’ stands for. For me, there is no doubt: it is an ambition – indeed, a commitment - that the economic strengthening of our Union goes hand-in-hand with improving people's lives. This is the core of the European Social Model and a vital component of our social market economy.

In my view, a 'triple A' social Europe requires fair and balanced growth that leads to equal opportunities and adequate protection for all throughout their lifecycle and the creation of decent, quality jobs.

This Commission has put fairness at the core of its agenda. I am convinced that it is only by ensuring that social considerations are better integrated in all EU policy areas that we will truly achieve a Social Europe.

The Commission has already taken concrete steps to make sure Europe deserves a triple A rating. Allow me to mention some of them:

We immediately took actions to help young people, who were worst hit by the crisis, to improve their opportunities through the Youth Guarantee.

We issued guidance to get the long-term unemployed back to work and break the poverty and exclusion cycle. And we launched the Accessibility Act to allow disabled but also other people like the elderly to participate more fully in work and society.

Within the European semester, we have deepened the analysis of employment and social performance, also by adding three employment indicators to the scoreboard of the Alert Mechanism Report underpinning the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure.

We adopted a proposal for a European Accessibility Act, which will give persons with disabilities – and older people - more opportunities and choices in their everyday life.

Work is also underway in 2016 on a fresh start to promote work-life balance for working parents – both men and women.

And before summer we will present a European Skills Agenda to equip people in Europe with the right skills - with a lifelong learning perspective - to help them enter and move up in the labour market.

In parallel with these concrete initiatives, on the 8th of March we launched a broad consultation on a first concrete outline of the European Pillar of Social rights. President Juncker announced this initiative in his State of the Union address in September last year.

The consultation will collect stakeholders' views, including of national parliaments, the European Parliament, social partners and the civil society. The consultation outcome will form the basis for a Commission proposal for the Pillar early in 2017.

Why a pillar of Social rights? The European social model is a success story: the EU is today the largest economy in the world and its citizens enjoy very high living standards. Our social model has effectively contributed to the prosperity and the progress of our societies. It is indeed a fundamental element of our growth model: addressing inequalities and social disadvantage; opening up opportunities for all to participate in society and economy; acting as a buffer and stabilising the economy.

But it is also more than that: our Social Model and its values define the type of society we are, and aspire to be. These shared, European values have materialised over time in a whole set of social rights, which are enshrined in national and European laws as well as fundamental rights.

At the same time we need to screen whether the European Social Model is still fit for purpose. We are confronted with long term challenges like globalisation, ageing society and changing work patterns. It is vital that we embrace and harness the opportunities that they offer. As it is vital to respond effectively to make sure that these new changes don't lead people on a path to precariousness.

We are also still confronted with the aftermath of the crisis. The crisis has exacerbated existing social problems. It has widened the disparities both between and within Member States. It has increased inequality in our societies; thrown too many families into poverty; made it difficult for young people to realise their potential on the job market; and has put our social protection systems under severe strain.

It's time for a reality check. Are our European Union and our Member State's policies in social affairs in the broad sense of the word still up to date? Are they fit-for purpose in the 21st century?

For this, we need a compass for renewed convergence, particularly within the Euro area. Our Economic and Monetary Union needs to become stronger and more stable, both economically and socially. This is what the Pillar of Social Rights is about.

The Pillar is built around three headings.

- The first heading is equal opportunities and access to the labour market

- The second is fair working conditions;

- And the third is about social rights in society.

Within these three headings, the Pillar sets out 20 areas of social rights - ranging from minimum income, childcare and housing to working conditions and work‑life balance. Each domain contains a number of concrete principles, which are based on existing social rights.

These principles are considered essential for labour markets and welfare systems that are fair, inclusive and that function properly. They take account of economic and social considerations, of the wide diversity of situations in Europe, as well as the changing realities on the ground.

This debate is also taking place in international organisations: the future of work is being debated in Davos, in the OECD and at the ILO. It is important that we also take a comprehensive view in Europe. The problems are common and so are the solutions.

That is why this consultation is addressed to all Member States; but it is particularly important for the Eurozone. Reducing the heterogeneity of social and labour market policies is essential for the smooth functioning and stability of the Economic and Monetary Union. So, the Pillar of Social Rights will, in first instance, be for the Member States of the euro area, but other Member States are welcome to join. The debate is open to everyone.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The consultation we launched on 8 March aims to trigger a truly public debate on social values and rights. We need to discuss concretely how the European Social Model must adapt to the twenty first century and how we will achieve this.

Our aim is to reach out to all corners of Europe. And to involve as many people as possible, from all walks of life so that the Pillar is representative and realistic in the context of a rapidly changing world. Finally, we want to hear from you – civil society in particular, and all our stakeholders. We want your views and your feedback on the outline of the Pillar. We want your opinions on its scope and content - with a view to strengthening the social dimension of Europe. We want to discuss the specific principles proposed and to explore the related challenges.

The consultation will remain open until the end of this year. I look forward to the debate that will surely follow.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A core value of the European Union is its ability to respond to the global challenges that European societies and economies face. The legitimacy of the European Union lies in its ability to give credible answers to the real problems of people in Europe: the plight of people at risk of poverty, or of the unacceptably high numbers of youth and long-term unemployed in our Member States. Or of the growing divergences in our societies and the harmful effect this has on our potential recovery.

This is the reason why, we have set ourselves ambitious social goals in this Commission mandate. And why we put people at the heart of all we do. That is especially evident in the proposal we have put forward for a European Pillar of Social Rights, and in all the steps we take to achieve a social triple A for Europe.

As you will now hear from my colleague beside me, the Dutch Presidency of the Council also calls for more democratic legitimacy in European decision-making. Together, we urge your active involvement - as representatives of European citizens - in our policy response to the challenges of today and tomorrow. This is essential to ensure that their voice is heard and that their best interests are protected in a fast-changing world.

Thank you.