For promoting fundamental social rights

, by Roberta Carbone

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For promoting fundamental social rights

On Wednesday 13th March, in the International Trade Union House, the European Manifesto to respect and promote fundamental social rights was presented. The introduction was already meaningful, as this Manifesto, launched in January 2013 and presented to the European Parliament some weeks ago, has already gained more than 450 signatures from all over Europe – not only from the Southern countries, as the chair is proud to stress.

The Manifesto was introduced by Isabelle Schömann, Niklas Bruun and Klaus Lörcher, members of the Transnational Trade Union Rights Experts Network (TTUR), a group of 8 labour lawyers working in the framework of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), and who initiated this Manifesto.

The header of the Manifesto states: «Labour and social lawyers from across Europe call on the European Union to respect and promote fundamental social rights in particular in respect of all crisis-related measures». Actually, the main point at the basis of this initiative is a strong critique against the outcomes of the austerity measures spreading all over Europe, which have reduced workers’ rights, and undermined the European social model. According to the speakers, the mainstream solution to the current crisis has been the reform of labour law, in order to make the market more flexible and less constrained by the respect of some important social principles. In particular, the promoters stress two main points.

First, the current trends show that, by implementing restrictive economic measures, public authorities are undermining the collective bargaining practices. The backlash on the workers’ rights is clear: Collective agreements were meant to set compulsory minimum standards, while today there is a tendency to lower those standards by promoting the negotiation on an individual basis. This development is being supported by the so-called “troika”, and in particular by the European Commission, which backs a decentralisation of labour representation at the national level. Therefore, the consequences of the labour market reforms involve also the social partners, whose autonomy is no longer being respected, according to Mr Bruun. Linked to this first point, the argument of the democratic legitimacy arises: The measures imposed to the European citizens are perceived as illegitimate, thus an anti-European sentiment is spreading all over Europe.

Secondly, as this Manifesto is promoted by a group of lawyers, they underline the obbligation for the EU institutions to comply with the provisions of the Lisbon treaty and of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. In particular Article 3 paragraph 3, TEU states that the EU is based on “a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress”. But the authors recall also the respect of fundamental social rights, which has become legally binding with the EU Charter, and the right of collective bargaining included in the ILO Conventions, ratified by all EU member states.

This Manifesto is one of the many responses to the current European crisis, which certainly turned out to be more political and social than financial and economic. Actually, what is strikingly clear is that even if many personalities acknowledge the failure of the neoliberal paradigm, and thus of both economic and political deregulation, the underlying discourse has not changed yet – and maybe it will not change at all. This is the reason why many voices are raising in favour of a return to a European social model, advocating for a more equitable and fair economic and social system.

At this point, there are two issues to consider.

First of all, the democratic question. National elections and the surge of euro-sceptic or populist political parties in all EU member states demonstrate that there is a request from the citizens to raise their voice and make it heard by those who govern. But who governs actually? The fact that we ascribe to the “troika” all the responsibilities about the austerity measures, and thus about the impoverishment of a part of the European citizens is the evidence of the fact that we cannot really identify one institution which is in charge for these decisions. It is a mix of international, European and domestic constraints, which leads to a one-fits-all approach, based on the short-termism as a kind of general principle. Therefore, as if it was not clear enough, we do not have a coherent European economic policy. Moreover, we do not even have a real European social policy, as this is mainly a competence of EU member states. In fact, much of the EU-led social policy is based on soft-law and on the Open Method of Coordination. Thus, if we want to talk about a model for the EU, we should first focus on making the EU a truly democratic system, with its own government: This way the European citizens could really have an impact, with their vote, on the decisions taken at the EU level, and above all there would be an institution with a real power to decide, which could be praised or blamed for its responsibilities. This would not only clarify the question about who holds the power, but it would also legitimize the decisions that are taken, thus making them more acceptable.

Then the second issue: While we still do not have a European supranational government – which means a European Federation – how can we try to convince the EU member states to change the path, in order to solve the crisis while saving the EU high living standards? It is my modest opinion that unfortunately it will be impossible, even with hundreds of academics’ signatures, to convince national leaders only with this kind of Manifesto. It is far too easy for them to answer that in times of crisis member states do not have enough resources to invest on new projects, therefore first we need to spare money, then we will think about making the European economy start again. This is what we have been listening to in the last few years. We should try to provide them with a more articulated solution then, by taking into account both the objectives and the means. As Tommaso Padoa Schioppa said, we should leave austerity to member states, and investment to the European level, because the added value of a certain amount of money invested at the supranational level is higher than the same amount invested at the national level, thanks to the economies of scale. Therefore, with a relatively small investment at the EU level, we could make the EU economy start again, while at the state level it seems impossible for the moment to invest on anything. By investing on R&D, we could create new jobs and focus on the green economy, improve the European competitiveness on the international level, and thus improve the European living standards in a qualitative instead of a quantitative way, by investing on a socially and environmentally sustainable development. That is why we should talk about development and not about growth. In order to do this, though, we need a more resources at the EU level: As investments fall at the state level, a part of those resources which have been saved could be transferred at the EU level through a new set of “own resources”, for example a European FTT, carbon tax or a reformed VAT. For these reasons the European federalists in many member states, together with many civil society organisations are promoting a European Citizens’ Initiative on a European Plan for Sustainable Development and for Employment.

This could be a tangible way to move toward a fairer economic and social model for the Europe of today, and for the next generations.

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