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24th Jan 2020

EU commission moots minimum welfare rules

  • About one in four Europeans is at risk of poverty or exclusion (Photo: vinylmeister)

The European Commission is to push for minimum standards on social protection across member states to show citizens that the EU is not just an "economic" project.

Employment commissioner Marianne Thyssen Tuesday (9 June) said she wants to see minimum unemployment benefits, a minimum income, access to child care, and access to basic health care in all 28 countries.

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  • 'The aim is to have an upper convergence and to show people that we are concerned about their social situation', said Thyssen. (Photo: European Commission)

"What we could think of is setting floors on the employment benefits in such a way that we see what should be the minimum coverage," she said.

She added that the commission would not be saying "‘you should earn, let’s say, €1,000 a month" but that member states shoud have "parameters" to define social protection based on national factors.

The commission will look into whether "enough people are covered in member states when they have an unemployment problem; how long are they protected. What is the level of the unemployment benefit in comparison with the former wage they earned," said Thyssen.

"The objective overall is to have a floor and to show people that there is a floor, that there is a bottom. And that Europe is not what many people think - just open all the borders and let us compete and we see where we end up."

Thyssen's comments come as the EU is experiencing a slight economic recovery, felt by few.

Some 23.5 million people are unemployed in Europe, while the gap between rich and poor is greater than ever, and years of austerity have stripped back welfare across many member states.

The area is a political minefield.

The EU has few real powers in the area of social welfare and employment and member states are broadly keen to keep it like that.

Thyssen said her department has examined the powers it has under EU law to see where it can act. She said the commission will be using a cominbation of legislation, co-ordination (herding governments towards particular goals) and an €86 billion-strong European Social Fund.

"The aim is to have an upper convergence and to show people that we are concerned about their social situation," she said, noting that member states with good labour market policies as well as "effective" social protection systems "fared best" through the economic crisis.

The commission is also planning to dip its toe into other controversial areas, including a review of work health and safety rules (covered by 24 different pieces of legislation), working conditions, and worker mobility.

UK referendum

The last two issues are of particular interest to the UK, which wants to negotiate a new deal on EU membership which it will then put to a referendum.

Among the laws to be looked at will be the working time directive - which limits the working week to 48 hours and which has been a major source of controversy in Britain - as well as rules governing access to social benefits, another political hot potato.

"We will come by the end of the year with a mobility package because we know that there are a lot of concerns on the fairness of social mobility," said Thyssen, referring to national debates about access by EU citizens to social benefits in another EU state.

"We need facts and figures about what's really going on in the member states that host mobile workers and in those that send mobile workers".

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