December’s European Council meeting: No country for Social Europe

By Mr Konstantinos Alexandris Polomarkakis, PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant (University of Bristol Law School).

customtileThe European Council is among, if not the most important of, the pivotal institutions of the EU, mapping out its direction for the near term. Its meetings act as the wayfinding system for the EU policies that are to be drafted and discussed in the coming months, affecting crucial issues that have been considered by the Member States’ leaders as pertaining to the Union’s top priorities. It sets the tone that the Member States as well as the rest of the EU institutions should follow.

In that regard, the latest European Council meeting in Brussels on December 15 touched upon the most pressing issues Europe is faced with at the moment. Managing migration flows and the Union’s asylum policy, ensuring an effective application of the EU-Turkey statement, deepening the common European security and defence policy while at the same time complementing the pertinent NATO mechanisms, the negotiation process on a settlement for Cyprus, as well as the future of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in the aftermath of the Dutch referendum in April, and the situation in Syria, all were at the spotlight of the summit. Even Brexit was dealt with by the means of a declaration following an informal meeting of the EU27.

On top of these issues, a whole section of the meeting’s conclusions was dedicated to what was designated as ‘economic and social development, youth’. This is, at first glance, a welcome addition, considering the uncomfortable position the EU is currently sitting at, with high levels of discontent, and, consequently detachment from the European project by its citizens, manifested in the recent public opinion polls and the rise of –primarily far-right- populism in its territory.  Social Europe could be a vehicle, which if employed effectively, has the potential to revive the long-lost interest towards and engagement with the EU.

Therefore, the fact that the European leaders decided to include such a section, which is not only limited to economic considerations, now almost perennially associated with the Union’s development, but to social ones is to be perceived as a hopeful sign, right? Not exactly would be the right answer, if one looks closely at the exact content of the said section. Of its five paragraphs (16-20), only one (18) centres around social considerations. The rest deal with the extension of the European Fund for Strategic Investment (16), the functioning of the Digital Single Market (17), together with the industrial policy aspects of the single market (19), and the realisation of the Banking Union (20), all primarily –if not solely- linked with the economic aspects of the EU.

The single island of something social found in paragraph 18 of the European Council’s conclusions, reads as follows:

‘The European Council calls for the continuation of the Youth Guarantee and welcomes the increased support for the Youth Employment Initiative. It also calls for work to be taken forward on the recent Commission initiatives dedicated to youth, including those on mobility, education, skills development and the European Solidarity Corps.’

It appears that only the youth were taken into account at this meeting, without any mention of other shares of the population that continue to suffer as a result of the global financial and economic crisis. The latter might have allegedly ended, yet at least its aftershocks still linger, affecting the welfare of EU citizens in a number of Member States, if not EU-wide. Of course, this shall not come as a surprise since from the meeting’s agenda it became obvious that the youth would be the key point of the social development section, but is it only them that require the EU’s attention?  Of course, it is the population group the hardest hit, and yet to fully recover by the said crisis, particularly in countries such as Spain and Greece, yet wouldn’t a more inclusive strategy be more meaningful, to unleash Social Europe’s potential?  What about the increasing number of workers in hardship in the wake of the sharing economy, for example?

Nonetheless, even this category-specific provision shall be welcomed, as the unique social consideration coming out of that particular European Council meeting. While it might not be ideal, at least according to my view, it is still better than nothing.

Moving back to the text of paragraph 18, it appears rather lacklustre. The language used might not depart from that used in European Council’s conclusions overall, yet lacking determination in the frame used, the power of ‘calling for something’ being rather weak to instigate change. The first half of the provision is centred around Youth Guarantee and its accompanying Youth Employment Initiative, while the rest focuses on some broadly-defined Commission initiatives on the area, the most concrete manifestation of which being the European Solidarity Corps. The former has been criticised as somewhat dubious both effectiveness and viability-wise, while the latter is brand new, with unknown –and thus unpredictable- results. Neither seems to be very promising or with much reformative potential, showcasing strong path-dependence and no willingness for radical change among the European policy-makers.

Consequently, while Social Development figured as part of a header of one of the key sections of December’s meeting in Brussels, this did not mean much in terms of substance. Donald Tusk, the President of European Council, in his remarks following the resolution of the meeting, failed to mention this part of the conclusions, perhaps deeming it not as important as the rest of the issues discussed, to be at the forefront of his speech. Social considerations, thus, were once again side-lined as something related to, yet not at the centre of the European project’s development.

These developments showcase the lack of a holistic approach in the field, with what was mentioned in the meeting’s conclusions being rather half-hearted. Despite the formal acknowledgment of increasing levels of social insecurity by the European Council in its Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap back in September, no concrete measures have been taken in that domain, the latest meeting representing another missed opportunity, despite the worrying signs of a soar in populism as –at least partly- a result of discontent with the EU’s policy directions.

The aim of this piece is not to undermine the significance of the other –admittedly rather timely and pertinent- issues discussed in the summit, but to highlight the need of adopting a more all-around approach, if the Union aims to restore confidence among its people and move towards the sui generis polity which it once aspired to become. Currently, its attitude seems to have reverted to resembling a primarily intergovernmental body, a change which could be explained amidst the sovereignty claims popping up every day in the Member States.

Yet in a world tarnished by concurrent crises, which have found their way in Europe, the role of the EU should be elevated, by delineating strategies to tackle those. By sizing those moments properly, the Union can then reconnect with its citizens. But for those strategies to work, they need to be comprehensive, incorporating effective measures directed towards Social Europe. Fragmented and sporadic efforts could only provide temporary remedies. For the EU to stand the test of time, it shall try and tackle its problems not by backing down, but by fighting back, having learned from its past, incorporating social narratives which would help raise its popularity and attractiveness as a pan-European project, and it is the European Council that shall re-direct its agenda to meaningfully encompass those.

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