The EU is trying to present itself as more socially just, calling for fair pay and fair jobs for all. How exactly that will happen, however, remained unclear at a summit in Sweden. Bernd Riegert reports from Gothenburg.
The renovated factory building at Gothenburg harbor where the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth was held was an unusual setting for EU heads of state and government to come together. Europe's most powerful politicians, divided into three groups, sat in a closely packed circle of chairs alongside experts and representatives from various social groups to discuss fair growth and fair jobs in the EU – all without assistants or dossiers. "It is a bit like being back in school here," the moderator told politicians at the start. "Please raise your hand if you would like to say something."
Clocking in at six minutes long, President Macron's long-winded address made his counterparts chuckle
Participants did not have to wait long for the first breach of established rules of order, when French President Emmanuel Macron spoke for six minutes – twice as long as agreed upon. Hungarian President Viktor Orban and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who were seated next to Macron, were visibly amused. "Well, that was certainly a social experience for heads of state and government," chuckled an EU diplomat who helped come up with the idea of seating participants in a circle.
'Invest in people'
By and large, the 25 heads of state and government participating in the special EU labor market summit were in agreement as to the issues to be tackled. The EU, it was said, must do more to prepare young citizens for the digital job market, and provide the opportunity for lifelong learning. Investment funds, they agreed, should be used to those ends. "We cannot only invest in infrastructure, bridges and highways; we must invest in people," said the French president.
The EU is home to some 15 million school dropouts and up to 60 million people who lack the qualifications needed to find employment. "That is where we have to start," Macron continued. Training and job markets need to be coordinated not only in France, he said, but across the entire EU. Warning that states should not use poor working conditions to compete with one another.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni cautioned that "social dumping" could not be used as a global benchmark. "Jobs can only be created through economic growth. We must use every instrument at our disposal to create growth." Gentiloni added that a balance had to be found between the rights of younger and older workers in the job market. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban promptly rejected the concept of a European model. "There are a number of very good ideas. The question is whether models that function in each nation can be created from them," he said, adding that in his view, the Hungarian model, which aims at full employment, but forgoes immigration and outside influence, has been very successful.
EU proclaims 'social pillars'
The European Commission, European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers proudly reiterated the 20 social policy goals of the European Union in the presence of visiting heads of state and government. The aims of the Union's "Pillar of Social Rights" range from the right to education, childcare, fair working conditions and wages to the right to adequate housing.
Marianne Thyssen, the EU commissioner for employment, noted that concrete resolutions as to how to achieve the goals were intentionally set aside. Member states, she said, must work individually and come up with their own plans of action. The European Commission can do no more than provide suggestions, for there could be no such thing as centralized social policy. "We do not want a social union, but rather a union of social standards," said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The EU's social pillars are nice, said Rebekka Hillmann, a Swedish student participating at the summit. But she wonders why social problems are being looked at in isolation. Adding that social problems must be viewed in relationship to climate protection and migration. "The immigration of climate refugees will be the true challenge facing the EU in coming decades," Hillmann told DW.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) also welcomed the 20 aims of the EU's social pillars. "Now something real has to be done about creating better working conditions," said EUTC General Secretary Esther Lynch. "Then, those who are not profiting from the current economic upswing and were pushed aside in the wake of the financial crisis can also have hope once again."
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Greek PM Tsipras, whose country came in last in a study on social justice in the EU released Thursday, seemed amused by Macron's address
A summit without Germany
Cyprus, Finland and Germany were not represented at the summit. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa criticized the absence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying, "She is neglecting our most pressing social issues." Merkel chose not to attend so that she could oversee ongoing coalition talks in Berlin.
EU diplomats attempted to allay any such concerns, reporting that EU Commission President Juncker was not disappointed by Merkel's absence. "The most important thing is that Germany fully backs EU social policies," said one diplomat. The chancellor has repeatedly assured Juncker of that fact.
Living standards vary greatly among the EU's individual member states, as do the quality of their job markets. Host country Sweden is among EU's wealthiest states and has some of the highest living standards in the world. Union representative Peter Thorwaldson points out that despite that fact, or perhaps exactly because of it, Sweden is very competitive globally. "We have the highest minimum wage in the world. That is pure poetry to the ears of a unionist," says Thorwaldson. Experts from the European Commission, too, attested that the discussion in Gothenburg was taking place in a setting with very high social standards. Documents on the summit read that in comparison to other regions around the globe, such as Africa or Asia, the EU's 28 member states provide a very high level of social security. Adding that nowhere do workers have more rights than in Europe.