What is the European Union’s role in addressing social policies?

As seen in chapter I, the EU’s role in addressing social policies arises both from an initial value-based objective of giving the economic entity a meaning, aiming at the well-being of its citizens, and also from the necessity of addressing the new situation introduced by the European Union such as for instance freedom of movement and the consequent need to address workers’ rights and social protection across borders. The reasons are therefore clear, but the means remain complicated and rest on political will and the delicate balance between surrender of Member States’ sovereignty (community competence) and intergovernmental agreements.

There is no competence for the European Union to legislate in one specific country, or to propose a European Union law on homelessness, for example. Social policies are the competence of National Member States with the support of the EU. However, as a reaction to ever-increasing economic integration, progress has also been made in rebalancing the importance given to social objectives. Member States have agreed to establish mid-term objectives, indicators and political pressure to work together and tackle social challenges. This is a soft law process, that is to say resting on political encouragement and pressure. This process was fully acknowledged and named “Open Method of Coordination” at the Lisbon Summit (2000).

Another example of this move towards some degree of social policy convergence occurred in 1999 when the European Commission adopted a communication for a concerted strategy on social protection, proposing a Social Protection Committee. The Social Protection Committee (SPC) is an EU advisory policy committee for Employment and Social Affairs Ministers in the Employment and Social Affairs Council (EPSCO), established by the Treaty of Nice (Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, article 160). It is composed of national experts and monitors social conditions in the EU and the development of social protection policies in member countries. It reports on social inclusion, health care, long-term care and pensions under the social open method of coordination, and promotes discussion and coordination of policy approaches between national governments and the Commission. For more information on the Social Protection Committee, refer to the list of members and official SPC website.

Social policies are by nature multidisciplinary, touching on many different topics and policy areas such as economics, sociology and law. It is important to be aware of the economic impact of social policies, as this is crucial for diaconal organisations (and all social services providers and social justice actors) advocating for a strong social model that will benefit society as a whole in the long term.

This integrated view was clearly taken up by the European Commission in setting up the Europe 2020 strategy in 2010 and the European Semester.

The “Europe 2020 strategy” is the EU’s growth strategy for this decade. Launched in 2010, it aims to achieve “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” through the achievement of five overarching targets:

  1. Employment: 75% of 20-64 year-olds to be employed
  2. R&D / innovation: 3% of the EU’s GDP (public and private combined) to be invested in R&D/innovation
  3. Climate change / energy: greenhouse gas emissions 20% (or even 30% if the conditions are right) lower than in 1990, 20% of energy from renewables, 20% increase in energy efficiency
  4. Education: reducing school drop-out rates below 10%, with at least 40% of 30-34–year-olds completing third-level education
  5. Poverty / social exclusion: at least 20 million fewer people in or at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

The “inclusive growth” objective of the strategy is particularly interesting. In these times of economic and financial crisis, austerity programmes and budget restraints, the challenge to find a balance between financial, economic and social policy has sometimes pushed Member States to forget the initial social inclusion dimension of Europe.

The European Semester is a European process for coordination of national budgetary and economic policies. It is also the framework for Member States reaching the Europe 2020 objectives. It is an annual cycle of political activities which primarily involves the European Commission and EU Member States’ governments, but it also relies on the participation of other actors: EU institutional bodies such as the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, international NGO platforms and networks, and local grassroots organisations. It is part of the European Union’s economic governance framework. Through its connection to the Europe 2020 strategy, it brings the social dimension together with the objectives of growth and competitiveness.

For more information on Europe 2020, the European Semester and their relevance to diaconal actors, check the Eurodiaconia online toolkit here.