The EU Renewed Social Agenda: the Right Way Forward?
In 1989, the approval of the Charter of Fundamental Rights for Workers and the related social action programme paved the way to the establishment of a set of binding social rights at the EU level. Those were the golden years of Social Europe, when a combination of factors - a socially-committed and skilful Commission, the political momentum generated by the internal market project - led to a significant expansion of EU action in the social domain.
Twenty years later, the situation is markedly different. The enlargement of the EU to 27 members as well as the shift towards right-wing majorities at the national level have translated into difficulties and a lack of political will to expand and renew the social "acquis". The "soft" methods of governance, which were supposed to take the lead in the advancement of Social Europe, have not produced the expected results. Last but not least, social issues have clearly taken second place in the EU agenda, as evidenced by some recent developments - such as the 2005 decision to refocus the Lisbon strategy on growth and jobs or the watered-down Council agreement on the Working Time Directive. There is thus a growing impression that Social Europe has come to a standstill, or even that it is in retreat.
In this context, it does not come as a surprise that the recent approval of a new EU social agenda - the so-called "renewed social agenda for the 21st century Europe" - has raised high expectations among those voicing the need for a more Social Europe. Yet, one might wonder whether this new social package is the right way forward to put Social Europe back on track. At first sight, there are two reasons for doubting on this. The first is that the new social agenda has been received coldly by the EU social partners. The business federation Eurochambers has dismissed the package as a "confusing patchwork with questionable added value" and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has defined it as a "modest step" that "falls short to win the hearts and minds of European citizens and to meet their needs". The second worrying element is that the new EU social agenda appeared in early July, just before the start of the crisis and at a moment when EU economic forecasts were moderately optimistic. In a context of relative prosperity, a choice was made for an EU social agenda largely committed to social promotion (providing opportunities and access) and long-term social investment (in youth, human capital, healthcare). Yet, the situation has dramatically changed in the last few months, with the onset of the economic crisis. While it is difficult to predict the evolution of this crisis, one thing seems certain: it will trigger major social consequences. We are already witnessing a dramatic increase of the number of unemployed in some EU countries, and if the crisis lasts for long - which is probable - this will translate into problems of social unrest, poverty and social exclusion. This change of circumstances raises serious doubts about the appropriateness and political opportunity of maintaining a long-term oriented EU social agenda...