Author: Tony Brown
This blog identifies the elements of the EU’s New Strategic Agenda which constitute a commitment to building a Social Europe and looks at relevant Irish Government policy priorities. Ireland’s European policy has always recognised that a social dimension has been a key element of the European project, beginning with the commitment in the Treaty of Rome to “promote improved working conditions and an improved standard of living for workers.”
At its meeting on 20 June 2019, the European Council adopted a New Strategic Agenda for the Union covering the five-year period 2019-2024 which is intended to provide a framework for the EU response to current opportunities and challenges.
The Agenda emerged from a process beginning with proposals from the European Commission, based on the roadmap unveiled in President Juncker’s 2017 State of the Union Address and covering the headings of Protective Europe, Competitive Europe, Fair Europe, Sustainable Europe and Influential Europe. These ideas were conveyed to the Informal EU Summit at Sibiu on 9 May 2019. In preparation for that meeting the Irish Government, on 17 April 2019, published a major National Statement on the European Union.
The Sibiu Summit adopted a formal Declaration, reaffirming the belief that a united EU is stronger and setting out ten commitments across a wide range of policy concerns, ranging from defending the concept of One Europe to protecting Democracy and the Rule of Law, and from Safeguarding the Future for the next Generations to Fairness. It concluded that “the decisions we will take will follow the spirit and letter of these ten commitments. This is the spirit of Sibiu and of a new Union at 27 ready to embrace its future as one.”
The New Strategic Agenda 2019-2024
The text of the New Strategic Agenda opens with an overview of the global situation, noting that the world has become “increasingly unsettled, complex and subject to rapid change,” before offering a perspective on the EU’s role in this context and the need for it to maintain unity, not only to navigate the challenges of this changing environment, but also to identify new and emerging opportunities.
The Strategic Agenda is designed to guide the work of the Institutions in the next five years and focuses on four main priorities: Protecting citizens and freedoms; Developing a strong and vibrant economic base; Building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe; Promoting European interests and values on the global stage.
The section of the Agenda on ‘Building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe’ deals specifically with Social Issues, which it says require “keen attention”:
The European Pillar of Social Rights should be implemented at EU and Member State level, with due regard for respective competences. Inequalities, which affect young people in particular, pose a major political, social and economic risk; generational, territorial and educational divides are developing and new forms of exclusion emerging. It is our duty to provide opportunities for all. We need to do more to ensure equality between women and men, as well as rights and equal opportunities for all. This is both a societal imperative and an economic asset.
Adequate social protection, inclusive labour markets and the promotion of cohesion will help Europe preserve its way of life, as will a high level of consumer protection and food standards, and good access to healthcare. We will invest in culture and our cultural heritage, which are at the heart of our European identity.
The European Pillar of Social Rights is about delivering new and more effective rights for citizens. It builds upon 20 key principles, structured around three categories: Equal opportunities and access to the labour market; Fair working conditions; Social protection and inclusion.
Addressing the implementation of its stated goals and priorities, the Agenda argues that the EU must focus on what really matters. In line with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, the EU must be big on big and small on small. It must leave economic and social actors the space to breathe, to create and to innovate. It will be important to engage with citizens, civil society and social partners, as well as with regional and local actors.
In Dail Eireann on 26 June 2019, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, reported on the European Council meetings on 20-21 June 2019, expressing his view that the paper reflects Irish priorities, as outlined in the country’s own National Statement on the European Union. Mr Varadkar further elaborated:
Our priorities are :the completion of the Single Market in all its aspects, with a free trade policy that champions opportunity and a level playing field; developing economic and financial policies that are socially responsible; working to prepare for the social and economic challenges of the digital transformation; ensuring that the EU plays a lead role in climate action and sustainability; and, finally, maintaining peace and security, including by developing stronger relationships with Africa and other partners. The EU Strategic Agenda provides us with a strong framework to seize the opportunities and tackle the challenges that face us, and to deliver for our citizens in the years ahead.
National Statement on the European Union
The National Statement on the European Union contains a substantial chapter on the theme of ‘A Union that is socially responsible’. This emphasises that delivering on the goals of the new European Pillar of Social Rights is a joint responsibility of the European institutions, Member States, social partners and other stakeholders (with due regard for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality). The Statement goes on to highlight the continued importance of employment creation, labour market participation, and the challenges associated with the changing nature of work:
Employment creation will remain important and innovation in the workplace, through increased investment in our citizens, will be necessary. Many existing jobs will be vulnerable to the digital transformation. Investment in upskilling and re-skilling will be needed and the changing nature of work will be a key challenge for employment and social protection in the new Strategic Agenda.
Member States will be required to focus resources from the European Social Fund on the challenges identified in the European Semester. In particular, Ireland will promote labour market participation by women and a better work-life balance; improve access to employment for all jobseekers, including the inactive, under-represented groups and people with disabilities; and promote the social integration of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion and address material deprivation, including housing exclusion.
The Statement details aspects of overall Social Policy which are to have priority in the period ahead. These include the EU new Youth Strategy, policies for Early Learning and Care, the forthcoming EU Work-Life Balance Directive, the European Health Insurance Card, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and policies on Inter-generational Fairness.
Speaking in Dáil Éireann of the preparation of the National Statement, Minister of State Helen McEntee stressed the importance of the programme of Citizens’ Dialogues and the value of citizens’ engagement: “The citizens’ dialogue process has been invaluable in the preparation of our new National Statement. Throughout the process, people told us they want to be part of a Union that continues to do what it does well, but is also ready to meet the new challenges that are better faced together. Most of all they told us they want to be part of a Union that is fair.”
Yet again political statements highlight the concept of Social Europe. The new Strategic Agenda argues for ‘keen attention’ to social issues while the Irish Government refers to an EU that is ‘socially responsible’.
A key element in both statements is the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, with the EU arguing for action on inequalities ‘which pose a major political, social and economic risk’ and the Government arguing that the principles underlying the Pillar – together with those of the Sustainable Development Goals – are critical in sustaining and protecting the Union’s legacy. Building on the Pillar requires joint commitment and action involving the EU institutions, the Member States and the social partners, having regard to the principle of subsidiarity and the competences of the various parties.
The New Strategic Agenda will become the fundamental text for the evolution of Union policies over the forthcoming five-year period. The Social Europe dimension will be at the heart of discussion and decision on economic, employment, trade and environmental policies. The relevant chapter of the National Statement may be seen as a point of reference for the Irish debate.