The march of far-right wing political parties across Europe, the recent Brexit, and the US Presidential election of Donald Trump – have all signalled a sweeping social disconnect and disenfranchisement on both sides of the Atlantic. In the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008, widespread austerity measures and budgetary cuts provoked support for far-right wing political parties.
While other crises facing Europe, such as the migrant crisis have placed increasing strains on the EU, far-right wing political parties have made gains on the lack of social solidarity and cohesion in the European Union which emerged as a result of the financial crisis.
With the French and German elections nearing closer, European leaders have increasingly acknowledged the need to address the widespread concerns over rising social and economic disparities, and the declining levels of social cohesion. In an effort to respond to the international echoes of discontent and disconnect, European leaders have increasingly highlighted the need to create a Social Europe. A general consensus has emerged from both European leaders and civil society, which has emphasized the lack of social emphasis attached to previous European strategies.
President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, initially announced plans to establish a European Pillar of Social Rights in the State of the Union Address in September 2015. Juncker put forward the concept of a European Pillar of Social Rights ”which takes into account the changing realities of Europe’s societies and the world of work”. A continued over-emphasis on monetary and fiscal policies in previous European strategies has resulted in a monetary union in the absence of a social one. Europe is now facing multiple simultaneous crises; referring to deficits, democracy and demographics – with these issues having been exacerbated by the financial crisis and the imposition of austerity measures in its wake.
The series of crises confronting Europe has resulted in widespread disharmony across the Union, as exemplified by the recent Brexit which threatened the relevance and viability of the entire European project. The European Pillar of Social Rights is set to be the key policy strategy in bridging the gap between a monetary and social European Union. The OECD has expressed growing concern over the ramifications of the financial crisis in casting long shadows over people’s future well-being, warning that many of the social consequences of the crisis, such as family formation, fertility and health, will only be felt in the long term.
Despite the Europe 2020 Strategy containing specific social objectives focused on achieving high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion – there has as yet been no single integrated EU strategy which combines the two key objectives: economic growth and social cohesion.
Studies from Eurofound and Bertelsmann Stiftung have highlighted that levels of social cohesion are declining across the Member States in light of new macroeconomic pressures. This is due not only to the economic and employment crisis but also due to longer-term trends such as growing income inequality, immigration and increased cultural diversity.
Furthermore, deepening social disparities in relation to poverty, labour market access, and access to health and education remain major concerns as highlighted by the Oxfam report earlier this year – an economy for the 1%. The aim of the European Social Pillar is to ensure prioritization of social policies in line with economic and monetary strategies, in order to address the social disparities across the Member States. In outlining plans for the EU’s new social agenda, President Juncker declared his support for a ”Triple- A” social rating for Europe. The reference purposely reflects the previous over-emphasis on fiscal policies referring to Triple- A credit ratings, a hallmark feature of the economic boom preceding the global fiscal crisis.
The widening of social disparities across Member States calls into question Europe’s raison d’ être in fostering economic growth and improving living and working conditions for European citizens. The rationale underpinning the European Social Pillar echoes Claus Offe’s sentiments more than a decade ago – in order to maintain popular support for the European project the EU needs to present itself to citizens as a credible institution of protection against economic insecurity and not as a threat to care, cohesion and solidarity.
Recent European protests over CETA and TTIP have underscored the resounding public opposition to further risks of globalization, and the general internationalization of European economies. The rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic has been largely attributed to the polarization of winners and losers under the new terms of globalization, and the erosion of typical forms and conditions of employment. The rise in precarious forms of employment and rising income inequality are two key factors contributing to the widespread public opposition to international trade deals and conventional political parties.
Public and political discourse is centering on the realization that economic policies in Europe cannot advance without social policies – as the two are inextricably linked.
It remains clear that redefining Europe will involve an inclusive and proactive policymaking approach focused on social investment and the prevention of risks, as opposed to reactive responses applied to repair societies during economic crises. The Employment Commissioner, Marianne Thyssen, has said that sustainable social protection systems require ‘upward social convergence’ based on minimum standards of social protection across Member States to show citizens that the EU is not just an “economic” project. In policy terms this would mean measures such as minimum unemployment benefits, a minimum income, access to child care, and access to basic health care across all Member States. Indeed, it seems that a European Pillar of Social Rights may be the lifeline strategy that the EU needs to stifle the further sting of social unrest across the Union.
 European Commission, Press Release 2015, President Juncker State of the Union Address. Available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-15-5614_en.htm
 Hansen, R. and Gordon, J.C., 2014. Deficits, democracy, and demographics: Europe’s three crises. West European Politics, 37(6), pp.1199-1222.
 OECD, 2016. Productive Economies, Inclusive Societies. https://issuu.com/oecd.publishing/docs/oecd-yearbook-2016-lowres
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