As the European Union turns 60, the future of the block is in doubt. On its southern borders, Greece is a problem that just won’t go away. To the North, Britain readies to leave. But while Brexit shook the foundations of the Union, it did help clear the road for ‘a social Europe’, the forthcoming Pillar of Social Rights. A vision for the Pillar will be laid out in a joint declaration from the forthcoming EU summit in Rome.
The ambition for a common social policy across the Union dates back to the European Coal and Steele Community, whose signatories also drafted a statement calling for ‘gradual harmonization of social policies’. However, efforts to achieve the ambition have routinely run into push-back from centre-right governments, not least from the UK.
But nothing could in the end prevent Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, from announcing the European Pillar of Social Rights in 2015. ‘The Pillar has been conceived as a reference framework to screen the employment and social performance of participating Member States, to drive reforms at national level and, more specifically, to serve as a compass for the renewed process of convergence across Europe’, as the Commission puts it. In other words, the time has come for benchmarks for things like parental leave, pension systems, equal pay and other workers rights (many already actually enshrined in EU law). Mission creep will soon establish actual minimum standards for welfare policy in general. ‘When the declaration will be published, it will be clear that this is another confirmation that this is an important area for the work of the EU’, Hans Dahlgren, Swedish State Secretary, commented. It is also made clear that the aim is minimum standards: member states with generous welfare states are assured that the aim will not be to interfere with their models.
The timing and urgency of this new initiative reflects a fear amongst EU bureaucrats that the union is losing relevance and popularity in the eyes of the electorate. The time has come for populist, easy solutions. The Pillar will show that the EU ‘touches people directly’, as Malta’s Prime Minister puts it. The European super-state is preparing to meddle more directly in the lives of its subjects.
The Social Pillar is another example why Brexit is important to all proponents of liberty. Though the Pillar initially applies only to Euro area countries, the direction of travel is clear: towards an all-encompassing European super-welfare-state. Britain, it seems, has had a narrow escape.