On the 14th of September 2016, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union speech to Members of the European Parliament gathered in plenary in Strasbourg, France, reflecting on key challenges for Europe and priorities for future political action.
A notably positive element was President Juncker’s emphasis on the need to ‘implement the Stability and Growth Pact with common sense’, calling for greater budget flexibility to encourage ongoing reform efforts – which could include concrete initiatives in the area of social investment.
So far, higher levels of social investment to counter social divergences in Member States have been hampered by a restrictive fiscal space. Against this background, Eurodiaconia has supported the call for a ’public finance golden rule’, which would exempt specific areas of public investment from the deficit targets of both the Stability and Growth Pact and the Fiscal Compact. Whilst the introduction of such a golden rule still seems far away, President Juncker’s remarks mark a step in the right direction.
However, looking more generally at social policy contents, Juncker’s speech sadly displays a lack of awareness of key persisting challenges, a narrow scope and a muddled sense of direction. It refers to high unemployment and social inequality, but it lacks any mentioning of the issue of poverty, which has been on the rise in recent years – in spite of the introduction of an EU-level poverty reduction target, which is officially still operational until 2020. The speech refers to the need to promote social justice and a fair playing field, but it concentrates on corporate taxation and workers’ rights. The need to empower citizens is mentioned, but in this context it refers only to young persons, job seekers and start-ups. Mr Juncker stressed the need for greater solidarity but applies it only to the situation of refugees, complemented by an ambivalent statement that ‘’tolerance cannot come at the price of our security’’.
It is telling that the State of the Union speech lacks any reference to Juncker’s originally stated intent to create a ‘Social Triple A’ status for Europe, calling instead for a general need to continue ‘’shaping economic, social and environmental standards around the world’’. The European Pillar of Social Rights was only briefly mentioned, and concrete proposals for social action are limited to the creation of a European Solidarity Corps – a volunteering platform mobilising young persons to respond to crisis situations, and improved implementation of the existing Youth Guarantee.
To read the full speech, please click here.