The EU’s social agenda beyond 2024: no time to waste
Good morning, everyone, and many thanks for this invitation. I am very pleased to be here today at the launch of the final report prepared by the High-level group on the future of social protection and the welfare state. Let me immediately congratulate with the Chair, Anna Diamantopoulou, and the members for the impressive, timely and useful work. And let me also thank Commissioner Schmit for the idea to launch a reflection on the future of social protection in 2021 in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic.
Covid-19 taught us two lessons.
Covid-19 has taught us two lessons. First, it is easier to fight a pandemic with an inclusive welfare state that provides broad and well-organised access to sickness and unemployment benefits and to short-time working arrangements for all its citizens—regardless of their employment contract or status, the type of job they do or the sector in which they work. How can one tell people they should stay home when infected, if there is no universal system of sickness benefits? How can one curtail social and economic activities—painful but unavoidable given the initial absence of vaccines—without support for those whose jobs and businesses are affected?
Secondly, even well-organised national welfare states reach their limits in the face of such a transnational challenge. European solidarity was key to reinforce national response capacities, with the SURE programme to sustain employment, the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the joint procurement of vaccines. The pandemic also exposed structural weaknesses in existing welfare states—gaps in outdated social-protection arrangements which make them less inclusive than they should be. If Europe is to become a true ‘social union’—a supportive environment for its welfare states, well-prepared for the cross-border health threats and emergencies to come—there is still a long way to go.
In short, here are two positive lessons we learned, about the added value of inclusive welfare states and the EU, but each of them comes with an impressive list of to-do’s… In this contribution, I will focus on the to-do’s in social protection, or rather, I will focus on the need to think ahead about the next social agenda for the European Union, that is, the agenda for the next European Commission and European Parliament. This is not to dismiss the current Commission’s important social agenda, which will require an open mind and hard work by each national ministers of social affairs and employment, to bring it to a good end by 2024. And you can count on the Belgian expertise and support for its implementation. Rather, my argument is that that agenda must not stop in 2024.
The Belgian Presidency: a strategic moment
It so happens that my government will have a special responsibility in delivering the current social agenda and preparing the next, as Belgium holds the presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2024, a strategic moment taking in the last months of the current commission and the elections to the parliament.
Two very recent reports highlight the challenges to be addressed. That of the High-Level Group highlights longer-term demographic and labour-market trends and the green and digital transitions. The report makes a strong and convincing case for a life-course perspective, combining social protection and social investment, if inclusiveness is our goal. Second, the Commission published last week its Report on the implementation of the Council Recommendation of 2019 on Access to Social Protection. This shows a mixed picture: there is some progress, in part thanks to measures put in place during the pandemic, but many were temporary patches and most member states fail to address some of the gaps in social protection.
A longer-term policy agenda requires three elements: vision, evidence, and ownership.
VISION. The EU is a Union of national welfare states, with different historical legacies and institutions, which ultimately remain responsible for organizing interpersonal redistribution among their citizens. The role of the Union is to support on a systemic level in some of their key functions and guide a substantive development of national welfare states via common objectives and standards.
What drives the need for a European Social Union so conceived are not only functional necessities but primarily shared aspirations, for which the Pillar has to remain the guiding manifesto. European welfare states should rely on investment in human capital , to enable people to live a decent life, change personal and professional statuses over the lifetime and make the most of their talent.
OWNERSHIP. Our concrete objective is to include an ambitious social chapter in the next Council Strategic Agenda to be handed over to the next Commission. We intend to have conclusions in the EPSCO Council of March 2024, which will pave the way for an inter-institutional declaration to be adopted during a High-Level Conference on the future of Social Europe that we will be organized under our Presidency. To make this all happen, we are engaging with and reach out to all stakeholders interested in co-creating an ambitious European Social Agenda 2024-2029, from the Commission to the Parliament, the Council members, social partners, NGOs and civil society.
EVIDENCE. Since the proclamation of the Pillar, the European social agenda has been revitalized with initiatives in a vast number of areas, from social protection, over minimum wages to childcare. Recently, a pilot project for Social Imbalance Procedure to be included in the European Semester has been launched with the ambition of putting on equal footing social and economic ambitions in the current European economic governance.
Any social agenda for the future should start from an evaluation of what has been achieved so far, what has worked and what can be further improved.
Access to Social Protection
A thorough evaluation of the Social Pillar’s twenty principles is necessary, but also an ambitious exercise. Take principle 12, centre stage in our agenda, access to social protection.
Social-security systems still rely too much on traditional schemes, designed for workers with a full-time contract of indefinite duration. They are ill-equipped to protect vulnerable groups. Low- or unskilled employees with standard employment contracts in poor sectors, the bogus (in reality economically dependent) self-employed, ‘flexible’ workers and casuals and platform workers often do not enjoy access to a vast number of social transfers or do so only partially.
Social-protection systems which no longer accommodate a significant part of the workforce have bad consequences—not only for those individuals but also for the functioning of labour markets, the stabilisation capacity of welfare systems and their funding. The 2019 council recommendation, which calls on member states to ensure formal and effective coverage through adequate and transparent social-protection systems—especially for non-standard workers and the self-employed—was an essential positive step. Belgium also presented its plan in 2021. Our country has a long tradition of guaranteeing social protection for everyone. It is built on the constitutionally anchored principle that everyone is entitled to social security. Together with social dialogue, it forms an essential component of our socio-economic model. This principle was renewed in the federal coalition agreement of September 2020, and a series of initiatives were already announced that are in line with the EU recommendation on access to social protection, such as the reform of the so-called "social status of the artist" (see the box below).
Twenty years ago I had the honor of introducing the ‘artist status’ in Belgium. This was a landmark moment. The status offered artists the ability to organize their work autonomously and, at the same time, it provided them with access to the social security regulations for employees.
However, recent years have shown us that the status was no longer in line with the current working conditions of professional artists. The current reality of professional artistic work is a combination of non-standard jobs, project-based working conditions, international mobility, limited access to bank credits and longer periods of invisible preparatory work. The covid pandemic showed clearly that the social security design was not sufficiently adapted to capture the artists who most needed social protection.
To ensure more adequate access for artists, we introduce a new framework that will enter into force 1st of January 2024, based on a "Working in the Arts - Certificate". Being a unique gateway, this has to be considered as an "all areas pass" to our social security for every worker active in professional creation or execution of artistic work. This certificate will provide artists with a comprehensive and seamless access to social protection, just like every other worker in our country.
This new landmark reform will help to support the Belgian arts sector and ensure that all those who contribute to its success are able to work with the peace of mind that comes with social security.
The recommendation does not however carry the force of a directive, there are lacunae in its scope and monitoring of its implementation is problematic. Reinforcement is required. To this end, the following issues might be considered:
Material scope: While the recommendation covers social-security schemes for unemployment, sickness and healthcare, maternity or paternity, accidents at work and occupational diseases, disability and old age, it does not yet extend to short-time working arrangements and temporary unemployment, the significance of which is underscored in Diamantopoulou’s report. (Relatedly, a successor to SURE, which has usefully supported national short-time-working and employment-insurance schemes, should be considered.)
The recommendation is also silent on how to guarantee access to social protection, whether via universal (publicly funded) or complementary (occupational) schemes. Similarly, discretion is left to member states on whether to apply mandatory or voluntary schemes to the self-employed, which creates legal uncertainty and social-protection gaps. Both issues, however sensitive, need clarification.
Transferability: How member states ensure that workers and the self-employed preserve their rights if they switch contractual status remains unclear and should be addressed in a future instrument.
Adequacy: The recommendation refers vaguely to preventing poverty and maintaining decent standards of living but a definition which can be operationalised is required.
Transparency: Access to information and simplification are not monitored under the current Recommendation. A discussion should be pushed on how to improve citizen-oriented transparency of social security systems, notably for the most vulnerable citizens.
Monitoring: The indicators deployed to monitor effective access to social protection and its adequacy need critical assessment. How the recommendation’s overall implementation will continue to be monitored after the first report also urgently requires reconsideration..
Legal basis: Last but not least, the choice of a recommendation as the policy instrument has limited its effectiveness to date. In 2017 the commission legal service provided an opinion that a directive was legally possible and this should be further explored.
To conclude, the road towards a fully-fledged European social union is still long and winding. A lot remains to do to implement the principles of the social pillar. The Belgian presidency is ready to take up the baton.
More information on this topic via EU social agenda beyond 2024—no time to waste (socialeurope.eu)
 Among the dossiers under debate: Platform Work Directive, the revision of the EU social security coordination legislation, and Directives on Binding Standards for Equality Bodies. Initiatives that are under preparation include the digitalization of social security systems and social safety nets in support of labor mobility, European disability card, Social Economy recommendation, Reinforced framework for traineeships, comprehensive approach to mental health.