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The people and trade unions take EU to task over the social pillar

The people and trade unions take EU to task over the social pillar

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl, Mikael Sjöberg, Government Office (top)

With a mix of slogans from the trade union movement, cinnamon rolls and sweets, the Swedish government, led by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, tries to present the EU from a different perspective. During the social summit in Gothenburg the social partners were literally sitting around the same table as prime ministers and EU Commissioners.

Stefan Löfven is the Swede who’d put ‘social’ back in democracy, read the headline in Politico, a publication covering the EU. The former welder and trade union representative has a working-class background which makes him unique among EU leaders. That is why he, with his credibility intact, could open the social summit with the following:

“As a former trade union leader, I am naturally guided in our common mission for fair jobs and growth by the popular motto: ‘United we stand, divided we fall’.”

A nail in the EU’s coffin?

The day before the summit, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which represents 45 million trade union members across Europe, held a meeting. The message: It was high time to revive the European social model, which according to ETUC has been dismantled during a decade of austerity.

“If the 20 principles in the social pillar proclamation really were realised, it would represent a new hope for workers who are still waiting to be allowed to benefit from the economic recovery. It would inject new life into the EU. If it turns out to be nothing but promises and nothing happens, it is a new nail in the EU’s coffin,” said Esther Lynch, ETUC’s Confederal Secretary.

  • Some of EU citizens’ rights according to the social pillar include:
  • The right to a good education and life-long learning
  • The right to fair and equal treatment in working life
  • Wages that provide for a decent standard of living
  • Women and men shall have equal access to parental leave

The unemployed have the right to adequate support to reintegrate in the labour market Everyone in old age should have enough resources to ensure they can live in dignity

But who decides what is fair, decent, adequate or enough?

Photo: Björn Lindahl

That was one of the questions put to the EU Commissioner for Social Affairs, Marianne Thyssen, when she met ‘the people’ in a meeting on the eve of the signing of the social pillar.

“That is up to the courts,” she answered.

The meeting was held at the Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law. After passing through security, participants were treated to sandwiches and the near ubiquitous cinnamon rolls. Nearly all of those asking questions represented different organisations, however.   

“Where is the wine?” asked a Swedish Brussels correspondent who was covering the event.

“There is not a single EU event in Brussels where there is no wine,” she pointed out.

Photo: Björn LindahlAt the press centre at Eriksberg, the many hundred journalists had to settle with sweets instead. 

Back at the old yard, turned into conference centrethere were three parallel debates between the heads of states, the EU Commission and EU Parliament representatives and the social partners, in addition to different voluntary organisations.

Journalists and the general public could follow this online in real time – this had been personally requested by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.


The debate became quite heated at times:

“You promise that we young people will get jobs, but to get one you need experience from working life. How do we get that when no-one will employ us? So we are forced into badly paid, low-quality internships, or different platform jobs which don’t give us enough working hours to earn social rights,” said Zuzana Vaneckova from the Czech Republic. She is on the board of the European Youth Forum.

“We need fair jobs and growth. But we also need fair growth,” said Sérgio Aires, President of the European Anti-Poverty Network.

“I am talking about what I thought would be discussed here, about what has been revealed in the Paradise Papers, about tax havens and how the money we need for our welfare systems are disappearing.”

What happens when the EU summit is over and the EU machine of compromise and tug-of-war resumes in Brussels? Some participants carry in their pocket lip balm which was handed out by the Swedish hosts, emblazoned with ‘EU on your lips’. But will it go beyond lip-service?

“I see that you are all committed to the debate. The declaration on the social principles and the social rights is a joint responsibility. If we are to deliver results, we need the heads of government, the ministers for employment, social issues and education, the EU institutions, the social partners and civil society. If we are to succeed, we need to work together,” said Marianne Thyssen.

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Three women defending the EU

Cecilia Malmström, EU’s Trade Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, Swedish Minister for Employment and Marianne Thyssen, EU Commissioner for Social Affairs during a public meeting at the Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law


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