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Sweden fighting for a stronger social Europe

Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights

, by Anna Rääs

Pillar talk is back. While employment and social policy is controlled by Member States, the Commission’s proposal for a European pillar of social rights has reinvigorated discussions on a stronger social dimension to be developed within the European Union. Sweden is keen.

Stortorget in Gamla Stan, Stockholm (123rf.com)

authors

  • Anna Rääs is a student currently in the International Security master’s degree of Sciences Po Paris. Born in Sweden, she has a professional experience in European affairs.

A new pillar for the EU

Post-financial crisis Europe has seen a slow economic recovery and, according to some, stagnating social conditions.[1] In March 2016, the European Commission presented its first outline of the European Pillar of Social Rights, first announced by President Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2015 State of the Union speech. Introduced within the framework of the Commission’s priority to create a deeper and fairer Economic and Monetary Union, the Social Pillar will address challenges of employment and social policies. The Commission hopes the Pillar will help create a social Europe more in balance with the financial Europe by boosting workers’ rights across the Union.

The preliminary proposal comprises the three main categories equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and adequate and sustainable social protection. The aim is to adopt 20 principles to complement the existing EU social acquis and to guide assessment and improvement of both employment and social policies at national levels, ultimately increasing harmonisation of Member States’ performance in the social and welfare area.

Primarily intended to promote convergence within the euro area, non-euro member States will be welcome to join the Pillar of their own accord.

The road towards a Social Europe

Sweden is keen to play a leading role in these discussions. Since taking office in 2014, the governing coalition comprising the Social Democrats and the Green Party has defined a strong social Europe for jobs and growth as one of its main priorities. Under this government, Swedish policy on deepening the Single Market and boosting competition is indisputably accompanied by the demand for fair conditions in the labour market and social protection for workers.

As part of the Swedish promotion of a stronger social dimension, the government has announced its intention to host a ‘Social Summit’ in Stockholm next autumn to map out the road toward a more social Europe. In the aftermath of the Brexit result, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven emphasized the need for a more social Europe to better respond to the needs of citizens. Being a non-euro country, Sweden’s chances of influencing social policy within the eurozone are undeniably smaller and the government would prefer the Social Pillar to include all EU Member States. With a possible post-Brexit shift in power to the benefit of euro countries, Sweden will have to forge alliances to ensure continued influence in EU social policy. The ‘Social Summit’ should provide a good opportunity for setting the agenda. According to government statements, Prime Minister Löfven and his ministers have been working closely with the Commission in the design of the Pillar. As it happens, the person in charge of this issue at the Commission, the Special Adviser for the European Pillar of Social Rights, is the Swedish former Social Democrat Minister for Finance, Mr Allan Larsson.

Preserving the Swedish Model

While the Swedish government strongly supports the concept of the Social Pillar and a more social Europe, it remains to be seen what it envisions more specifically. Indeed, many of the proposed principles match the Swedish priorities, such as improving education and promoting life-long learning, further developing coordination of social benefit schemes and fostering work-life balance and gender equal parental leave. Nevertheless, not all aspects of the European Social Pillar are consistent with Swedish views. Proposals on minimum wage may cause a headache for the government. Swedish Social Democrat MEP Marita Ulvskog told the Swedish EU news website Europaportalen that the Swedish model of wage formation, in which employers and labour unions negotiate wages and general conditions without government influence, is a success and needs to be protected. The Swedish government would still prefer welfare legislation to be regarded as mainly a national issue, no doubt to keep the Swedish welfare system intact and avoid the risk of new EU legislation relaxing national social regulations.

Social issues are growing in importance on the EU agenda. Beside the Social Pillar, the Commission has enhanced the role of social considerations within the European Semester and put forward initiatives to make labour mobility easier and fairer, such as the proposed revision of the Posting of Workers Directive of 1996. This revision lies close to the heart of the Swedish government in its fight against social dumping within the EU, the catchphrase being “equal pay for equal work”. The revision has been opposed by 11 national parliaments and Ann Linde, Swedish Minister for EU affairs, described the Commission’s decision to move forward with the revision as “a victory to us”, quoted on Europaportalen.

The outline of the Social Pillar with its 20 principles is currently subject to a broad public consultation, closing December 31st, the intention being to assess the current situation, gather feedback on the draft proposal and to encourage non-euro member states to start reflecting on whether they will want to opt in. The Commission is expected to put forward its revised proposal in early 2017. The Pillar’s legal form is one matter that is still to be identified and discussed. Despite the Swedish government’s ambition, it is not clear that it will get what it wants: the wish to preserve certain aspects of the national welfare system and labour model might not coincide with expectations in Brussels and the agendas of other Member States.

References

[1] Dauderstädt, M., Kemlek, C. (2016), Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, ‘No progress on social cohesion in Europe’, http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id/ipa/12668.pdf

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