Towards a new Social Compact? A view on the Pillar of Social Rights

The European Pillar of Social Rights, launched by the European Commission in March this year is an effort to achieve a European ’Triple A’ rating in employment and social affairs, in response to the backlash against austerity measures imposed across Europe. The final outcome of the Pillar will be based on a public consultation that lasts until the end of 2016 and involves social partners, national governments, civil society, academia and citizens. The Pillar of Social Rights is not meant to replace existing rights (such as those, for instance, defined in the European Social Charter or the Charter of Fundamental Rights), but should offer a better way to assess and access them, taking into account current and future trends in work and social life. Once established, the Pillar should become the reference framework to screen participating countries’ employment and social policies, and serve as compass for a renewed process of convergence within the Euro area.

With protracted consequences of the financial crisis further exacerbated by rising precariousness and widening inequalities, Europe is falling behind its objectives set in the EU2020 strategy. Five million more people are at risk of poverty and social inclusion than before the crisis, equating to almost a quarter (24%) of the total EU population, with 9% of Europeans suffering severe deprivation. There is indeed a need to rebalance monetary, economic and social objectives, while taking into account shifting dynamics in work patterns, demographics, and social conditions. While a ’Fiscal Compact’ with tighter budget deficit rules inspired by the German debt brake model for limiting deficit was implemented in 2012, we have been far from having something like a ’Social Compact’ – and since then, we have seen austerity politics increasingly taking a toll on the social model in Europe, going hand in hand with the rise of populist and anti-European movements. In this sense, the commitment to a more social Europe comes at least four years too late, typically following an already institutionalized market-conformism that is much better suited to serve the interests of international creditors than those of ordinary citizens.

However, the efforts shown by the European Commission to tackle social concerns should not be discredited out of hand. The recent cycle of the European Semester process has incorporated a stronger social dimension, emphasizing the role of human capital, social investment, healthcare, childcare, housing and rehabilitation services. There is a window of opportunity for the European Pillar of Social Rights to capitalize on current efforts by strengthening social standards to ensure a life of dignity and full participation in society for all. Concurrently, new ways of integration of the Pillar of Social Rights into the European Semester need to be implemented in a sense that social concerns are put on an equal footing, and not just as mere followers of fiscal and budgetary discipline.

The current draft Pillar of Social Rights is subdivided into three distinct strands encompassing 20 essential principles which should become common to participating Member States in the conduct of their employment and social policy. The consultation process is open until the end of the year and with the inclusion of healthcare, sustainable social protection systems and occupational health as essential principles, EPHA members and the public health community at large have the opportunity to make wide-ranging contributions.

Against a backdrop of a rising prevalence in chronic conditions, weakening protection systems and an increase in unmet needs across several Member States, a strong commitment to better health prevention, quality and affordable healthcare embedded in a social safety net will require common consensus around better indicators accompanied by a ’healthy’ dose of political will in implementation and monitoring.

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