On 17 November 2017, representatives of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights (ESSR) at a social summit in Gothenburg. It contains twenty principles for fair, well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems and is supposed to be a „compass for better working and living conditions in EU Member States“. Twenty years after the first and so far only social summit in Luxembourg, all 28 EU Member States have committed to common standards. But at the same time they want to retain their national sovereignty in the affected policy fields and give only minimal competences to the EU. The ESSR is not legally binding and does not provide any measures for sanctions therefore it is little more than a voluntary declaration of intent.
It is obvious that the ESSR by itself will not lead to the often promised convergence of living standards in all European member states. Furthermore it can be seen that the process of convergence between “old” and “new” members has more or less come to a halt since the economic crisis 2008/2009. The crisis is one explanation for that slow-down, but it is not the only one. Rather, it has to be taken into account, that all the countries from Central and South Eastern Europe underwent a triple transformation in the last 30 years with actually quite different outcomes. Usually it is assumed that there is one model with a defined set of characteristics valid for all these countries. In consequence, little attention is paid to the factual differences between them, where they come from and what brought them there.
The Regional Project on Labour Relations and Social Dialogue of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation therefore wanted to throw a glance at the underlying factors that have contributed to these diversities and discuss the current state and future prospects of convergence process towards a unified and veritable social Europe.
Invited were guests from the 11 “new” EU countries Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, representing social partners as well as the public service.
The discussion was initiated by a contribution by Ruth Paserman (Deputy Head of Cabinet of the European Commissioner for Social Affairs and Employment, Marianne Thyssen). Mrs. Paserman addressed the question of the direction and extent to which the EU has influenced convergence trends and plans to do so in the future. The thesis that the convergence process in terms of quantity (wages, etc.) was actually much further advanced than would generally be assumed caused some astonishment. Furthermore, Mrs. Paserman argued that the European Commission's presentation of the European Pillar of Social Law was now a viable vehicle for policy in the sense of greater convergence, but that window of opportunity should now be used by nation states.
Afterwards, the former EU Commissioner for Labor and Employment, Laszlo Andor, gave a more detailed picture of the state of the convergence process in the 11 EU countries, which became members of the Union since the EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007. He also dealt with the following questions: What is the degree of harmonization between Member States of the measures needed to achieve sustainable pay / employment and social policies? Is there room for a coordinated EU fiscal policy and what about the problem of moral hazard? Is the digital revolution an opportunity or a threat to sustainable wage and employment and social policies in CEE / SEE / EU? What policies can promote sustainable wage and employment and social policies in CEE / SEE / EU in an increasingly globalized and funded economy?
After these two keynotes, the most important part of the forum started: the discussion in the subregional panels. For this purpose, the participants were divided into three groups according to their country of origin: Visegrad, Baltic and Southeastern Europe. In these groups, the following questions were then discussed in two rounds (Round 1: Wage Convergence, Round 2: Convergence of Social Security Systems) and guided by scientific experts and social partners:
1. What concrete steps and convergence policies have been implemented in my country and in our region? What worked and what did not work? Why?
2. In which areas do we currently see the largest gap and thus the greatest need for more convergence activity?
3. What can we expect from public authorities (national, European) and what responsibilities do the social partners have?
4. What is the potential of social dialogue to influence convergence processes and how?
The results of these discussions were recorded by the scientific experts and made available in a small exhibition to the entire plenary the next morning. The findings were then further taken up by an international panel representing all stakeholders of a tripartite social dialogue and the ETUI's European perspective and discussing concrete options for urgent action towards a pan-European convergence of social standards and wages.
Owerview of the situation in 11 countries: