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17th Apr 2021

EU leaders make pledge on social issues after populist backlash

  • After Brexit and the rise of anti-EU forces, EU leaders have promised to 'put the best interest of our citizens in the heart of the EU agenda' (Photo: Consilium)

In an effort to tackle rising populism in the European Union, EU leaders gathered on Friday (17 November) in Gothenburg to strengthen the social aspect of the bloc to protect workers, and help the underprivileged.

In a formal ceremony, the presidents of the European Commission and Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker and Antonio Tajani, with Estonian prime minister Juri Ratas in the name of the EU Council, signed a so-called 'European Pillar of Social Rights'.

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  • The social summit was held in the old shipyard, Eriksberg, in Gothenburg (Photo: EUobserver)

In the document, EU leaders agree 20 principles, ranging from gender equality to fair wages to assisting the homeless. Social policies vary widely across Europe, and it will remain in member states' competences.

Friday's meeting was to show that the EU has received the message of voters, after the Brexit referendum in the UK and after populist parties gained strength across Europe in the wake of the financial crisis, and will now focus on what matters to the daily lives of citizens.

"If we allow unemployment to grow due to unfair practices, if jobs are left vacant because young people lack proper education or parents haven't received retraining, then social discord in our countries will grow," the host, Swedish prime minister Stefan Loefven said.

"After challenges and uncertainty in the EU in recent years, I firmly believe that the best way to increase trust in the EU and in its institutions is that to bring about real improvement in people's daily lives," he said in a joint press conference with Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk.

"Today we have shown this does not need to be the case ... Today has shown, there is a clear commitment to put the best interest of our citizens in the heart of the EU agenda," Loefven, a social-democrat, added.

The leaders met in a town hall format with labour and business representatives and shared ideas. Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel was absent due to coalition talks back home.

Rules from above?

Loefven said that the European semester, the EU scheme to monitor and harmonise member states' economic policies, gives a chance for countries to coordinate their social policies as well, but did not say if it will become a new benchmark for EU countries in the process.

But the Commission wants to include the social pillar into the semester.

"We from the Commission, we are going to integrate this social pillar in the European semester," Marianne Thyssen, the commissioner in charge of social affairs and employment, told EUobserver at the end of the summit.

"We will also use our funds and we will fight in the next multi-annual financial framework [seven-year EU budget] to have enough money available to support member states for the reforms that are necessary," she said.

Thyssen commended that member states took the initiative on the discussion on the social pillar.

"We have a common proclamation that is also a commitment from the member states. It is not just Europe that has to say what has to happen. It is not the commission that is saying to all the member states what they have to do. Everybody will do its bit," she said.

During the summit, representatives of trade unions, employers and civil society also took part in three working groups, together with the prime ministers and presidents.

"This is the first, this is a beginning. The last [social summit] was 20 years ago," explained Marianne Thyssen, who was a member of the European Parliament then.

Referring to the economic semester, she said: "We look 'where do we have to make a remark', what is exceptional in this member state, or going very well - or going very badly."

"The semester is a tool for dialogue. It is not just a tool for [the] punishment of state … it is a real dialogue. Giving them support and motivating them to do more where they can do better," she added.

Orban's way

Not everybody in Gothenburg pledged to let their social policy be formed by Brussels, however.

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban said that it was always good to give each other ideas but reminded that: "There is a model in Sweden. We will surely see a French model coming from [French president] Macron and we, Hungarians believe our model has worked for us through the crisis."

One of the key issues is mobility and flexibility.

The president of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, recalled that Nordic countries have the "highest low [minimum] salary in the whole world, and at the same are the most competitive countries".

"It is only possible because of flexibility. We let people move from one job to another," he added.

He noted that people change jobs and move much more often than a generation ago. The average European worker has gone from having a job for life to having more than ten in a career.

The social summit is the second in a list of total 13 meetings listed in the so-called Leaders Agenda that was adopted by EU leaders in October.

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