26th Feb 2024

Nine states call for revival of social Europe

A group of nine member states have issued an open declaration calling for more promotion of social Europe, asking that the issue raised at an EU leaders summit in two weeks time.

France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Hungary, Belgium and Greece have all signed up to a two-page long declaration in which they argue that the 27-country bloc should be more than just an internal market.

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Calling their statement, which has been sent to all member states, "enhancing social Europe" the currently nine-strong group want to use the ongoing negotiations on the EU constitution as a springboard for their ideas.

"A link between enhancing Social Europe and a new impetus of institutional process is needed," says their declaration, which has also been supported by EU social affairs commissioner Vladimir Spidla.

It continues by saying that a Europe of 27 member states "cannot just be a free trade zone but shall guarantee the necessary balance between economic freedom and social rights."

Social Europe is defined as a set of "common values" such as social justice, equality and solidarity.

The countries call on the European commission, parliament and member states to work out a future for Social Europe "by promoting (...) reforms and adaptations related to globalization, industrial restructuring, technological innovations, demography and migration."

This should be done to strengthen employment and work quality while protecting social rights enshrined "in the European tradition."

They also call on their ideas to be "endorsed" in the conclusions of the next EU leaders meeting on 8-9 March.

The idea originated at a recent meeting of EU social and employment ministers with Italy putting out the feelers for the declaration and France and Spain quickly jumping on board.

"We thought it might feed into the discussion around the Berlin declaration," said a French official, referring to the EU's 50th birthday text - a highly symbolic declaration that is supposed to resonate with citizens and re-engage them in the European debate.

The call for more social Europe goes to the heart of a debate in Europe about the extent to which the bloc should adapt to the force of globalisation and the extent to which it should set certain social, environmental and work standards, which detractors say could hamper growth and competitiveness.

Pro-business EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso recently suggested "solidarity" and "social cohesion" should be part of the EU's birthday text while the German EU presidency has also put social Europe at the heart of its agenda, with chancellor Merkel mentioning it once again in a speech to MEPs on Wednesday.

"It's about removing fears that the EU is just a community where the aim is to make things easier for companies. We must give greater expression to the social dimension of Europe," German EU affairs secretary Guenther Gloser said recently about the anniversary declaration.

So long as declarations are symbolic and have no formal standing then they are likely to be uncontroversial with more liberal minded states such as the UK, but diplomats fear that entangling calls for more social Europe with the ongoing debate on the EU constitution will unleash deep divisions within the bloc.

Even calls for a protocol on social Europe to be attached to the EU constitution as a way of reaching out to French citizens - largely thought to have rejected the EU constitution for being too Anglo-Saxon - are likely to cause rifts with some states worried about Europe getting any sort of foothold into social policy - a jealously guarded national domain.

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