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Social Europe under pressure
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Social Europe under pressure

| Text and photo: Gunhild Wallin

There’s a conflict between the EU’s social ambitions and national autonomy, not least when it comes to the labour market, Sweden’s newly elected Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson told a seminar in Stockholm on 22 October.

It was the day before Sweden’s new government, a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens, were to present their budget proposal, but that did not stop Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson from giving a speech and delivering her view on ‘Social Europe’. European issues are high on her agenda, and only two weeks into her new job, Ylva Johansson has already met her European ministerial colleagues twice. 

“It is good to know the other ministers. How you cooperate and create alliances is more important than what is said during formal meetings,” said Ylva Johansson.

The Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies had organised the one-day seminar. Researchers from several European countries focused on how the economic crisis and austerity measures imposed on some of the hardest hit countries have impacted on the social dimension in the EU. They painted a fairly gloomy picture. The tough economic cuts imposed on many member states by the economic institutions have weakened trade unions and has hit women particularly badly.

Devastating consequences for women

“There has been a conscious decision to try to weaken trade unions, and a disregard for the gender perspective which has had devastating consequences for European women,” said Niklas Bruun from the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki and the Stockholm University.

Ylva Johansson also expressed concern over developments in Europe, and in Sweden too, especially with regards to young people.

“It is time for change and high time we created a functioning labour market, improved school results and strengthened welfare quality. The key is to create more and better jobs,” said Ylva Johansson. 

She described how the economic crisis in Europe has led to more inequality in the labour market. There are big gaps between men and women’s conditions, amplified by big cuts to welfare systems — which mainly hit women. Women are the ones who compensate for those cuts through unpaid work, part-time work, lower wages and risking poverty. Ylva Johansson warned against a growing “precariat”, i.e. a growing group of workers who live under uncertain and poor conditions when it comes to work.

“Many are growing up scared of not finding a job, and many can’t find safe employment. This has serious consequences for the rest of their lives, and for their chance of starting a family. It also has an impact on the economy and our democratic system. We get a divided and vulnerable society,” said Ylva Johansson.

Youth unemployment is still very high in Sweden on an international scale, and a major challenge for the new government. Money has been set aside in the new budget and the government will also invite local decision makers to find agreements which can provide new investment and new jobs. 

Problems must be properly solved 

“That is where our focus is first of all. But it is important to solve this problem in the right way, to find proper jobs which can be combined with education. We also want to tailor solutions to the individual person,” said Ylva Johansson.

She pointed out the importance of fighting against the development of a precariat per se. 

“If not the weakest workers end up there.”

Ylva Johansson calls herself a true friend of the EU and its freedom of movement and common market, but she also underlines that the freedom of movement must not be used to lower social conditions and rights. That is why the government wants to introduce a social protocol where social rights and labour market legislation have a clear and strong position, but where member states are not forced towards a lowest common denominator — they should have the right themselves to improve workers’ conditions.

“If we want to find common social solutions, we need a dialogue. At the same time there is an important dilemma. While we strive to reach social agreements, there is also an unwillingness to give up parts of national autonomy. In Sweden we have a well functioning labour market which works better because of agreements and not because of legislation. So we cannot blindly accept all EU regulations on the social safety-net. There is a big difference being regulated by the social partners or by the law,” said Ylva Johansson.

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