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Mobilising for a strong social Europe

Mobilising for a strong social Europe

| Text: Bengt Rolfer and Gunhild Wallin, photo: Nicolas Lobet

On 16 April, a new social declaration on the future of employment policy covering the years 2024 to 2019 was adopted in Belgian La Hulpe. The La Hulpe Declaration was signed by the Belgian Presidency on behalf of 25 countries. Sweden and Austria were the only EU states not to sign.

“The declaration shows the way for the labour market and social policy for the next five years. It provides hope through clear-cut rules for a just labour market and addresses social dumping, bad working conditions and low wages,” says Nikolaj Villumsen, an MEP from the Danish Red-Green Alliance, part of The Left in the European Parliament.

Nikolaj Villumsen

Nikolaj Villumsen is happy the EU's employment policy for the next five years has reached such an advanced stage. Photo: The Left

Nikolaj Villumsen has a seat on the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and took part in the negotiations on the La Hulpe Declaration. He also participated in the high-level conference as part of the EU Parliament’s official delegation. 

Villumsen was elected to the European Parliament in 2019 but is not running for the next period due to his party’s rotation principle. The day after the high-level conference, he was happy that the EU’s employment policy for the next five years had reached such an advanced stage. 

“The social summit will set a different agenda for Europe from the competitive mindset that currently dominates. This is about creating secure jobs and providing protection in the workplace. I would have liked to see an even more ambitious programme, but the conservative governments in some member states put a stop to that,” says Nikolaj Villumsen. 

Nearly everyone was in La Hulpe

He returns to the high-level meeting in La Hulpe and concludes that “nearly everyone was there” – EU President Ursula von der Leyen, member states government ministers, MEPs, commissioners, the ETUC President and employers’ representatives from BusinessEurope and SMEunited. 

La Hulpe

”Everyone” was in Belgian La Hulpe to discus the future of employment policy. Photo: Nicolas Lobet

However, the Swedish government, which had been against the declaration from the beginning, was not represented, nor was the Danish government. Denmark is one of the 25 signatories, and Nikolaj Villumsen thinks it was unfathomable that the country chose not to send a representative. He also takes a swipe at the Swedish government which was not there and did not sign.

“Employers and the Swedish government want fewer laws and more competitiveness, but the market has not delivered social security and fair labour market rules, which is why we need a social EU. There is now global competition for green industrial policy, so where should the green workplaces be? In China, the USA or in the EU? Through fair social transition we can get them here,” says Nikolaj Villumsen. 

He is worried about the far right gaining a majority after the EU parliamentary elections. Already the liberal-conservative EPP group has begun backing away from climate goals and is increasingly cooperating with parties on the right. 

“A right-wing parliamentary majority would spell disaster for the climate and the green transition,” says Nikolaj Villumsen.

Swedish scepticism

So why did the Swedish government, as one of only two member states, choose not to sign the La Hulpe Declaration for the coming five years? 

Ulf Kristersson“We did not want to risk repeating the mistake made in 2017 with a social summit which had consequences that Sweden later had to row back on,” Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told the Swedish parliament’s EU Committee on 16 April. He underlined that issues such as wage formation and welfare policy should remain a national concern.

The current Swedish government is critical to the former Prime Minister Stefan Löven who hosted the 2017 social summit in Gothenburg. It resulted in the European Pillar of Social Rights, where one of the EU’s directives eventually became the controversial legislation on minimum wages. Denmark and Sweden protested vehemently, arguing this was an issue for the social partners, not the EU.  

The minimum wage directive was considered a direct threat to the Swedish model and the same argument was made in Denmark. The social partners and governments in both countries agreed and put up significant resistance.

The working hours directive has also faced controversy in Sweden lately, especially among emergency workers who feel the directive forces them to work new and worse shift patterns.

The economy and social security "should go hand in hand"

The La Hulpe Declaration is a voluntary agreement to stick to an action plan for employment in Europe for the coming five years. 

“It shall serve as our compass for fostering a fair transition, ensuring that no one is left behind,” reads the Declaration, alluding to the big changes ahead brought by the green transition and AI. Ursula von der Leyen pointed out in her speech the importance of Europe being both economically and socially strong, citing examples from the dramatic crises during the current parliamentary period.

Ursula von der Leyen

"Our union must deliver for both people and businesses," said Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President. Photo: Nicolas Lobet

The EU and the rest of the world was hit by the pandemic. The world had just begun to open up again when Russia invaded Ukraine with the resulting energy crisis. These crises of historic proportions could have turned into dramatic social crises, said von der Leyen. 

“But they did not. This was because of Europe's great resilience but also because we put the right policies in place.”

Many predicted mass unemployment in the wake of the pandemic lockdown. But things turned out differently. 

“More than 75 per cent of Europeans are employed. Close to our goal of 78 per cent by 2030. And how is this possible? Because we have built sound economic policies, with a strong social heart. Our Union must deliver for people and for business,” Ursula von der Leyen said in her speech. 

The social pillar a monument for great change

When the social pillar was adopted in Gothenburg in 2017 during a summit initiated by the Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, it was received with what might be called indulgent benevolence. ”A very nice declaration” was a common comment, not least among researchers, says Sven Schreurs, a researcher at the Europan University Institute in Florence. 

He is in his final year of writing a PhD in political science focussing on how the EU’s social policy has developed over the past three decades. Together with David Bokhorst, a fellow researcher at the same institute, Schreurs has written the analysis ”Europe’s Social  Revival: From Gothenburg to next Generation EU” on commission from the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies. 

Sven Schreurs

Sven Schreurs is a researcher at the Europeiska University Institute in Florence. Photo: Private

“Changes linked to the social pillar have been slow, but now the pillar of social rights has become a monument for big changes. Many countries see it as a useful guide when working with social and labour market issues,” says Sven Schreurs. 

The declaration following the Gothenburg conference has been criticised for presenting old ideas in a new wrapping. 

“A lot was already in the pipeline. After the economic crisis in the 1990s and around the turn of the century, both a social and economic agenda emerged which was reflected in the Lisbon Treaty. 

“However, the meeting in Gothenburg added something new and provided political support for the work on social issues. Sweden and Denmark have been sceptical to the minimum wage directive but Denmark has become more active after the platform directive showed how the EU can bring something to the table when it comes to ‘new’ social issues,” says Sven Schreurs. 

Summing up the past seven years, he and his colleague David Bokhorst conclude that the social pillar has been consolidated and is here to stay. There is, however, uncertainty around what will happen after the European parliamentary elections, depending on the results.

There is currently a lot of support for the social agenda in most member states and with the social partners – the employers’ organisation BusinessEurope being the exception. Meanwhile, there is scepticism among most far-right parties which do not want an EU-level directive on social issues, but there are exceptions here too – for instance Italy.

The Swedish government has said a clear no to the La Hulpe Declaration. The Belgian Presidency does, however, hope to be able to convince Austria to sign in time for the formal adaptation of the Declaration in June.

Nikolaj Villumsen, MEP from the Danish Red-Green Alliance which is part of the Left in the EU Parliament, was part of the team negotiating the La Hulpe Declaration. Photo: Nicolas Lobet
The La Hulpe Declaration on the Future of Social Europe
  • An action plan for strengthening the European Pillar of Social Rights for the next five years.
  • Individual member states and the social partners are responsible for what needs to be done and how much.
  • The European Pillar of Social Rights is a declaration comprising 20 principles, covering among other things equal opportunities and access to the labour market, just working conditions, social security and inclusion.

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