After nearly nine months of consultations on the European Pillar of Social Rights the fog is lifting and the contours of what has been promised and what many of us have been determinedly calling for in the last few months are taking shape. The Commission’s work plan already gave some indication of where they were heading: although we were invited to contribute to the design of the pillar and called unanimously for more than a social placebo in these times of multi-crises, the work plan reduces it to a “set of rights”. It is true that subsidiarity is an issue, as the German Constitutional Court reminded all of us four years ago, and that the majorities are what they are. Nonetheless some political courage is needed to conclude the big debate on the design of what should be more than an internal market with the four core freedoms. Citizens rightly ask what the EU is doing for them? Trade unions and Civil Society Organisations engage tirelessly with their constituencies in the Member States defending – in spite of some justified criticism – the European project. Saying that there is no alternative would be wrong, because the neo-nationalistic wave is growing even though it does not yet have the magnitude of a full political tsunami.
The year to come will be marked by important elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. At least two out of three are at risk. Looking to the electorate of the populist far right we see workers (like in Austria where 85% of them voted for the dark brown candidate), we see people who are on the margins of our societies who are simply denying the principles of a democratic regime and who come back to elections making the difference. The anti-establishment discourse is still gaining ground, directed also against Europe and its institutions instead of being directed against the financial elites who are responsible for the crisis of 2008 and who continue gambling in the casino. Arguing under these circumstances that there shall not be a legally binding pillar, but a politically binding declaration is everything but promising.
After “too big to fail” justified bailing out the banks and introducing austerity policies, the five Presidents’ report at least opened some doors for a social union. But after nine months should we be satisfied with a politically binding declaration? The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) representative in the debate at the North-Rhine Westphalia representation last Tuesday asked the Commission representative the right question: “Do you really think that we can return to workers who are afraid for their future with such a message?” Certainly not. We have had so many wake-up calls, but it seems that not everybody has heard them.
If ever the European project fails, nobody will be able to say in a few years time that “we did not know”. It is our role as civil society to mirror European policies or seek to improve them where they are lacking. We have had the Lisbon-strategy, the Social Agenda and Europe2020. Shall we now be satisfied with a “politically binding declaration”? We want rights and not benchmarks! A pillar of rights, not of principles, because promises only engage those who believe in them. Social Rights First!