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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Opening Speech by Commissioner Thyssen of Conference on European Pillar of Social Rights

Brussels, 23 January 2017

Dear Ministers, Honourable Members of Parliaments,

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning and welcome to this conference: the first sounding board after the consultation on a European Pillar of Social Rights.

All of us here acknowledge the need to manage the process of change in our economies and society: And in our respective roles, we need deliberate and determined action. We must not remain passive in the face of change which can jeopardise our basic social values.

We all have the responsibility to prepare the ground for Europe to remain competitive and social in view of the new dynamics affecting our econmies, societities and labour markets. We cannot sit around and wait for the recovery [of the economy alone] to improve the social situation. In fact, the recovery will continue to be weak if we do not tackle the social impact of the crisis and make fairness a priority.

I understand the uncertainty, fear, and even anger of people who feel 'disconnect' with the great changes taking place in the world.

People want peace, freedom, and democracy: But they also want security, in these times of major change: not only due to the crisis, but also because of globalisation, digitalisation, and even demographic change. We need to offer solutions and to give answers. The right answers.

We also heard, via the consultation, some people say that: social issues should be left solely to the Member States. That the EU should limit itself to fostering growth and competitiveness; and that Member States will handle fairness through taxation, employment and social protection. I fundamentally disagree. If we want the Internal Market to work well for everybody, we need to strive together for upwrds convergence. If we do it together, everyone according to their competences, we can achieve much more.

Moreover, if we look at the Treaty: article 3 says that the Union shall work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress.

This is the essence of the society we want: where increased competitiveness goes hand in hand with social progress.

And so; economic policy is social policy. And social policy is economic policy. You cannot disentangle the two - and we need action on both at the same time.

This is the leitmotif of the Pillar. We need to make sure that our legislation and our policies are still fit for purpose for the reality of today and tomorrow. Fit for purpose means living up to the core set of principles which we all agree are at the core of the soial market economy.

The video we have just seen is a perfect anchor for today's discussions. It highlights some of the challenges which ordinary people face every day, in their professional and private lives.

These challenges are not new, but what really comes out of the video is the need for change - the areas where we can improve - and which the Pillar of Social Rights seeks to address. These include:

- Creating better life chances for young people;

- ensuring a good work life balance

- making sure peoples skills keep pace with change; and

- Ensuring nobody is left behind.

In the video, we see how the Youth Guarantee gave Aristea a better start in working life, with the chance of professional experience, which is essential, and which inspired her with the confidence to become an entrepreneur.

Young people need activation support to help integrate into labour markets. They need investment in entrepreneurial skills and other competencies to seize the opportunities of today and tomorrow.

But young people also need secure rights and safe transitions.

We then saw the case of Baiba, who wants a part-time job so as to be able to reconcile with her family responsibilities. Balancing personal and professional duties is a challenge facing many women and [of course nowadays also] men, and a major barrier to paid employment.

Clearly, a lot more can be done to enable and encourage flexible working methods and to provide affordable and quality childcare.  

The necessity of keeping pace with change is raised by Tommy and Fabrice in the video. Europe has a problem of a persistent skills gap – which is both a barrier to people's employment chances, and a risk to our economic standing.

Skills development must match market needs – both now and in the future. People need new skills to keep up; and to allow European companies to stay competitive. This is the rationale behind the Skills Agenda which was launched last year.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are just some of the issues which came to the fore during our consultation on the Pillar of Social Rights. It sparked huge interest and wide debate these past months.

Over time, we saw that the consultation gained in momentum and in depth and richness of input, from all sides: In particular, from national social partners, civil society and local authorities. This is a most helpful input - on top of that received from national authorities, EU level institutions and EU-level social partners.

During the consultation, we received over sixteen-and-a-half thousand online replies and nearly 200 position papers. Their content is rich and varied.

Via the consultation, citizens have issued a strong call for action on Social Europe. And the EU will play its part in this.

To me, it is clear that we must take a dual approach:

-        To strengthen and secure economic growth and job creation on the one hand, and

-        To make sure that the opportunities are there for everybody and that no one is left behind, on the other.

Clear messages emerged early on. There are questions which we all face – whether North, South, East or West:

• How to turn new economic developments into decent job opportunities

• How to bring more people into work;

• How to ensure income levels cater for quality of life;

• How to ensure that all people, self-employed, gig-economy workers or otherwise, have access to social protection;

• How to safeguard rights and secure transitions at critical junctures in life such as changes in job or career path; and

- How to strengthen convergence in particular in the Eurozone.

These are the issues you will discuss here today in the workshops. We've structured them around six themes:

- We need more and better qualified people in employment – this is not only about job creation, but also about skills and ensuring that everyone has equal access to the labour market;

- While we need all types of jobs, we must not accept that they come at the cost of worker rights;

- Europe has always placed importance on social justice – as the core of its social market economy, so we need to tackle inequalities and poverty head on;

- Discussions on the future of work are about digitalisation, automation and robotisation. How should the workforce adapt to these changes? Similar debates on this theme are on-going in the ILO and OECD, and we follow these with keen interest.

- While different ways of working flourishing, we have to ensure that everyone is covered – and contributes to - social protection. This is key for sustainability and adequacy

- And finally, we need to reflect on how EMU can better take into account social considerations. 

We look forward to hearing your views and your proposals in these sessions, in particular I welcome those voices which we don't normally directly hear in Brussels - national representatives of employers, both big and small, trade unions, social partners, of civil society.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Pillar of Social Rights offers us the opportunity to address change and to make the most of the opportunities it offers in the world of work and society. It is a means of working together at all levels in order to achieve better social outcomes for people.

The Pillar is not a new supranational creation of a European Social Union. Instead, the Pillar is building on the existing social acquis. And we are continuing our work on other social files in parallel. For example, on 10 January, we adopted measures to modernise the policy on the protection of worker health and safety and legislation to better protect workers against the risk of cancer.

This Commission is also giving a voice to social considerations beyond social legislation – in pursuit of economic and social objectives: This is happening in the European Semester; social partners have been consulted on Energy Union and on Digital Single Market; and labour market considerations are central in our trade-related proposals. 

As you see from the programme, we have Commissioners and Directors-General from across the policy spectrum. This shows that social considerations are a cross-cutting priority and not limited to my own portfolio.

Neither is this debate limited to one institution: Last Thursday, the European Parliament adopted an ambitious report with wide support across the political spectrum. The Committee of the Regions adopted a report in October and the Economic and Social Committee will adopt later this week a wide-ranging report, equally supportive of the Pillar.

We have also had regular discussion with Ministers and Member States in various Council formations: employment and social affairs, competitiveness, and the Economic Policy Committee of ECOFIN.

And Social Partners played a central role in the formation of the Pillar of Social, through a series of dedicated hearings and exchanges at political level.

Dear colleagues,

It is not all doom. Europe is and remains the part of the world that manages better to marry economic and social progress. We are now firmly on the path to recovery: the employment situation is improving with almost 5 million jobs created since the end of 2014: and compared with last year, unemployment fell by one and a half million in the EU.

It is true that we still struggle, with 119 million people at risk of poverty. But the trend has finally reversed and wenow have nearly 5 million fewer people in poverty than in 2012.

But, there is still a lot more we can do:

-        For example, if we are to achieve fairness in the labour market, we need decent and fair working conditions for all workers - regardless of their employment relationship. This is particularly important to young people, so that they get the chance to build up social security rights. And those rights should be "portable" between jobs, across career paths and across borders.

-        If we want to improve the life chances of people, we need to ensure everyone has equal access to the labour market.

-        If we agree that 'social protection is a shared value', then we need to broaden our social safety net now to cover new risks.

-        While we have to consider new forms of employment relationships, we must also accept that we cannot turn back time. We should encourage new ways of working: But we must ensure that a core of rights is guaranteed. Our guiding principle should be to keep pace with change and adapt the existing rules to new developments.

-        And if we want to bridge the skills gap, we need a better understanding and anticipation of labour market needs.

Ladies and gentlemen,I am convinced now, more than ever that the debate on social issues should be at the heart of the discussions on what kind of Union our citizens want to have from now on.

We need a competitive economy that enables quality job creation: And an economy which will also provide a long-term sustainable and appropriate social protection to citizens throughout life.

All this means hard work and specific, tangible actions because words are not enough. We need to use all the instruments at our disposal - legislative, financial and policy coordination. Partnerships at all levels will be needed to achieve its objectives on the ground.

This is an agenda, which needs to fully engage all stakeholders, in particular Member States, in line with the subsidiarity principle.

We are ready to play our part, but the centre of gravity of social and employment policies is and will remain with national and local authorities. Therefore, let me be very clear on this, we all have a shared responsibility here. The primary responsibility for making social rights a reality lies with national governments and social partners.

Expectations have been raised and it is essential that all partners seize this opportunity, jointly, for upwards social convergence in Europe.  

It is now time that we agree on a shared vision for social fairness: That we use our respective tools to make the Pillar a reality. And that we share ideas and experience, to learn from one another so as to ensure progress around the Pillar.

Today's conference is the first step in building a more social Europe. I wish you a successful conference and look forward to our joint efforts.

Thank you.


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