A European Union that Matters?

Earlier this month, the Conference on the future of Europe was initiated, aiming to give a voice to citizens on the direction the EU should take in the coming years. The EU has at times become distant from its citizens, with Euroscepticism on the rise – even in Malta, and the rise of illiberalism which is fragmenting the EU more than before. The future of the EU must be democratic, grass rooted and citizen oriented. Thus, in a time whenEurope is combatting one crisis after another, all carrying existential threats for the Union, the Social Europe ideal is key for a better future for all citizens and for empowering everyone to have a say in European affairs.

On the social front, the EU leaves much to be desired, as can be seen with the austerity measures, the straightjacket of the Economic Monetary Union, the one-size-fits all mentality, the ECJ’s rulings in the Laval(341/05) and Viking Line (438/05) cases against trade unions and the lack of social harmonisation, as enlargements increased. These present a difficult path ahead for a social Europe.

Social Rights

English sociologist TH Marshall (1950) has contended that citizenship is a bundle made up of civil, political, and social components, laying ground that all citizens should have social rights – therefore a right to welfare systems. The EU still lacks a universal welfare system, with different welfare structures throughout the EU, and a lack of social transfers. Although it has enshrined its Social Rights, such as gender equality, better wages, a minimum basic income, and social inclusion,  the EU has budgetary limitations and can only influence policies in its Member States. Moreover, we have seen restrictions imposed on some Member States which limit them in expenditure on social protection. Gender equality and the principle of equal pay, was enshrined in the Rome Treaty in 1957, however now we need to go beyond this through empowering workers.

The principle of a Minimum Income Guarantee was introduced in Article 14 of the Social Pillar, stating that ‘Everyone lacking sufficient resources has the right to adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life, and effective access to enabling goods and services’. The guaranteed minimum income for all, comes with a lot of scepticism. However, this is crucial for the avoidance of poverty in Europe. The main objective of this is to provide poverty-proof levels of income for those struggling to make ends meet. This minimum income would need to reflect access to basic standards, and therefore putting aside the ‘One Size Fits All’ mentality. The main benefit of such a basic income is that, first and foremost, it empowers workers in poor conditions, and those living in abusive households or workplaces, to stand up for themselves, as this provides them with an exit option.

Moreover, a minimum income can allow for persons to resume education, something which is paramount for tackling poverty. Opponents of such a policy argue that people would settle for this minimum income. However, wouldn’t it be best to question why people would settle for this minimum basic income? Most probably, this is due to barely paying jobs. This is why it is important to make work pay. There should not be such thing as in-work poverty (IWP), as jobs should lift workers out of poverty – not keep them in it. Therefore, it is important to ensure adequate minimum wages, reflecting the cost of living throughout the EU. Additionally, industrial relations, such as workplace democracy and collective bargaining need to be secured to mitigate socioeconomic issues, such as IWP.

Addressing the Democratic Deficit

The EU has a democratic deficit whereby the only elected institution, the European Parliament (EP) lacks the right of initiative on most areas, as this is solely held by the Commission. Going forward, Parliament needs to win this right of initiative, as it has won other powers throughout the years. Moreover, the Commission Presidency must be democratically elected. Another issue is the lack of societal involvement in agenda-setting and in the policy cycle. Most European citizens do not know about the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which allows citizens to gather petitions and oblige the Commission to act, if the said petitions reach the 1 million mark.

Going forward, we need a bottom-up, participative democracy, in which the EU is not distant from its citizens in Brussels. We feel this even more as citizens of a small island in the Mediterranean. The EU needs to reorganise its democratic deficit through the creation of more citizen dialogues – as Brussels is at present the lobbyist capital, reducing the importance of ‘demos’ in our highly valued democracy. The EU needs to ensure that citizens interests are considered over the interest of the few. This can be done through coordinating citizens assemblies throughout the EU, with citizens discussing European policies and entrusted with both the right of initiative of the EP and agenda-setting powers to citizens.

Therefore, we must build a social and a different kind of Europe, reforming the institutions of the EU, making them really work for the many, not the few. We need to protect the freedom and dignity of all EU citizens, stand firm against the rise of anti-democratic populists, through the promotion of shared prosperity and solidarity. A social Europe will be crucial for the future of Europe. It must become a movement not of resistance, but of transformation, especially in the wake of illiberal governments, stomping on the rights of minorities, and the pandemic, which have made us rethink our priorities.

It is now time, to prepare for a future, which will bring challenges to the working class. Workers won minimum wages, job safety rules, paid holidays, an 8-hour working day and health insurance. Now we need to emerge stronger in the face of challenges, from the future of work to the green transition.

We must respond to the escalating inequalities throughout the EU with a social Europe, that works for the many, not the few.

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