The first ministerial meeting under the Belgian Presidency of the European Union brought together the Ministers for Employment and Social Affairs in the Walloon capital of Namur. During the first day, Ministers discussed how social policies should be reflected in the strategic agenda of the EU institutions after the European elections.
The so-called “EPSCO Informal” opened with a minute of silence for the late Jacques Delors. The first plenary session was chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Dermagne and introduced by European Commissioner Schmit, Deputy Prime Minister Vandenbroucke and OECD Director Scarpetta. Aside from the Ministers and their representatives from the EU Member States, the EFTA countries, Ukraine and Moldova, the social partners and civil society participated in the discussion on the main achievements of the previous years and what remains to be done. The debate underlined the importance of the European Pillar of Social Rights that was proclaimed in 2017 and the corresponding headline targets set in 2021.
Progress has been made but new challenges arise
Thanks to the Pillar and the corresponding Commission Action Plan, the current legislative period has seen a lot of EU activity in the social field, with the minimum wage directive, the pay transparency directive and the SURE initiative to support job retention schemes during the Covid pandemic as the most remarkable ones. Delegations pointed to these successes and agreed that the Pillar should remain the compass in the years to come. However, new challenges, related to climate change, digitalisation, demographic evolution, the housing crisis and the deteriorating geopolitical environment require a vigorous answer and targeted action. Although these evolutions provide several opportunities, they also come with a risk of social exclusion, job polarisation and deteriorating wages and working conditions.
The Ministers, social partners and other delegates discussed what policies are needed to make labour markets and the social system, but also the economy overall, in the EU future-proof as well as more robust and resilient to unforeseen shocks, and how social dialogue can play a stronger role in this respect – thereby looking forward to the Val Duchesse Summit between the Commission and the social partners that will take place on 31 January. They underlined the importance of policies to reinforce equality, including gender equality, and for policies that leave no one behind. They agreed that concrete actions at the level of the EU and its Member States will be needed and supported the Belgian Presidency’s initiative to come forward with an interinstitutional declaration at the La Hulpe conference on the Social Pillar on 15 and 16 April.
Labour shortages, social protection, and social services
In the afternoon the Ministers and the other participants had more in-depth discussions in three breakout sessions. The first session, chaired by Walloon Minister Morreale - as the official “assessor” during the Belgian Presidency - was devoted to labour shortages. The number of vacancies that cannot be filled is increasing throughout the EU. The discussion focused on the different policy instruments that are available to tackle the challenge. The role of skills policies is crucial and received particular attention in the context of the current European Year of Skills and in light of the new Commission Skills and Talent Mobility package. Delegates also referred to the importance of improving working conditions in shortage industries.
The second breakout session was chaired by Minister Vandenbroucke and discussed the SURE programme as well as access to social protection. Full coverage of social protection is indeed often limited to standard employment relationships, and social benefits are not always adequate to guarantee a decent standard of living. The delegates broadly agreed that there is a need to fill these gaps, and in particular, tackle benefit non-take up, the phenomenon that not all those who are entitled to benefits claim them in practice.
However, fostering social inclusion and lifting people out of poverty does not only require benefits. The provision of quality social services, such as healthcare, childcare, care for the elderly, independent living of persons with disabilities and social housing are an equally essential part of the European social model. This was the topic of the third breakout session, that was chaired by Minister Lalieux. The discussion focused on the challenges that social services experience, ranging from lack of coordination to varied quality assurances or standards and funding gaps in times of increased pressure on public budgets.
Looking beyond the boundaries
On the second day, there will be two more plenary sessions. The first one will look beyond the EU borders. The debate will be introduced by ILO Director-General Gilbert Houngbo and by the Employment Ministers of two EU candidate countries: Ukraine and Moldova. Fostering labour and social rights worldwide is key to preserving the EU social model in the long term, and more policy coherence at the global level is therefore paramount. A key initiative in this respect is the establishment of the Global Coalition for Social Justice by the International Labour Organisation in November 2023. The coalition provides a platform for political action and concrete initiatives towards social justice and decent work.
The EU enlargement process equally poses challenges for employment and social policies. Ministers will discuss ways to foster social progress in the candidate countries so that when new countries enter the Union they become part of the social “level playing field” - with equal rights and similar conditions - that underpins the European Single Market.
The final session of the Informal EPSCO Council will pay specific attention to the coherence between employment and social policies on the one hand, and economic and environmental policies on the other. In this context, the role of social investment is crucial. The discussion on its importance and its place in the EU economic policies started during the Spanish Presidency and will culminate in a joint meeting of the Employment and Social Ministers with the Finance Ministers of the EU on 12 March.
It is time to remember the importance of the social dimension of Europe. It is precisely what we did in Namur. We are facing huge challenges both at the European level and within our societies. It is time to give a new impetus to the implementation of the European pillar of Social Rights. This is the added value of Europe, its DNA: protect, prepare and strengthen people. From Namur to La Hulpe, the goal is to set the expectations high to empower our people.
Building on the principles of the Pillar of Social Rights, this Commission has taken many important steps in pushing the social agenda forward. From ensuring minimum wages provide a decent living, to giving children from a poor background a good start in life, to getting companies and workers to invest in lifelong learning for the jobs of tomorrow. I look forward to the Summit at La Hulpe in April, which will be a moment to assess, consolidate and launch new avenues in the implementation of the Pillar, making sure we answer citizens’ needs and concerns in their working and personal lives.
Obviously today, we are very much concerned about and focused on geopolitical crises such as the war in Ukraine or in the Middle East. However, our internal solidarity in Europe, and the resilience of our societies, premised on robust welfare states, will remain key in coping with such international geopolitical instability. Although social protection remains in the hands of the Member States, the European Union does have levers with which it can make a difference, for example by setting minimum standards or supporting collective action. Our goal is to set up a common European agenda to make the best use of those levers to create a Union that guarantees opportunities for all, fosters high levels of quality employment and guarantees adequate protection for all. For the European Union to be a strong player in the world, it has to be a Social Union for its citizens.