European pillar of social rights: compass for national reforms or justification for new European legislation?

The European Commission’s draft pillar of European social rights aims at setting out several fundamental principles for evaluating the efficiency of national employment and social policies and bringing them more closely into line with each other in future. However, concrete conception and scope of such a European pillar remain unclear so far.
Pillar of social rights as a possible engine for implementation of structural reforms

German employers have hitherto expressed constructive views on the fundamental idea of a European pillar of social rights. If it sets out central benchmarks which act as an engine for driving forward the implementation of structural reforms at national level towards dynamic labour markets and sustainable social systems, it can make an important contribution to strengthening the sustainability and hence the social efficiency of European economies. The goal of upward social convergence should be pursued within existing instruments such as the European Semester so that no duplicate structures are created.

Happily, this approach is supported by the Advisory Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Affairs (EPSCO). In a position adopted by the EPSCO Council on 13 October 2016, the Employment Committee (EMCO) and the Social Protection Committee (SPC) underlined that the initiative for a pillar of social rights should be seen in conjunction with economic and political developments in Europe. EU competitiveness, solid state finances as well as further development of the European single market would have to be secured and strengthened by the pillar.

EU already has an extensive social acquis

However, the Commission’s first provisional draft contains some principles which could have the opposite effect and which furthermore fall clearly within the competence of national states and social partners. Good and sustainable working conditions are ensured in particular through construction and development of the Social Dialogue. Adequate and sustainable social protection is rolled out at national level in line with the principle of subsidiarity – the same also applies for equal opportunity and labour market access. Under no circumstances must the pillar weaken or even undermine the rules laid down in TFEU on when the European Commission has full responsibility for social policy initiatives. Neither should this interfere with the autonomy of social partners.

An extensive social acquis already exists at EU level. Minimum social standards which are binding on all Member States are laid down in more than 70 directives and regulations, inter alia on equal treatment, work-life balance, working time, information and consultation, health and safety at work. A concrete and detailed snapshot of this social acquis and above all also its implementation in the individual Member States must therefore be the starting point for any discussion on the design of this pillar. So long and insofar as the existing European social legislation suffices for managing current and future challenges, there must be no new European legislative measures.

Concrete conception of the pillar still unclear

The absence of clarity surrounding the ultimate goal of the pillar as well as the ongoing discussion about its structure and content, in particular in the European Parliament, give rise to the concern that – contrary to this principle – the pillar is smoothing the path for the creation of new legislative provisions in employment and social policy, without there being any real need for them. MEP Maria Joao Rodrigues (S&D, Portugal), rapporteur in the EP Employment Committee, is calling in particular for the drafting of a directive on “fair working conditions” for all forms of paid employment. This directive would apply for all public and private sector workers in “non-standard employment relationships”. According to the draft report, “non-standard employment relationships” are fixed-term work, part-time work, on-demand work, self-employment, crowd-working, internship or traineeship.

A new comprehensive piece of legislation would upset the balance of the historically and culturally evolved national social systems. Furthermore, it would diminish the global competitiveness of European companies. Therefore, in the development of a pillar of social rights, Commission’s exclusive concern should be to support the even implementation of existing rules for minimum social standards.