Go easy on the social, Europe

COPENHAGEN — It is crucial to maintain popular support for the European Union. As heads of states and governments we must ask ourselves every day if our political decisions make sense and seem fair to ordinary Europeans. That is particularly the case in the area of employment policy and social affairs — a sensitive area at the core of national competence and with a profound impact on our citizens’ daily lives.

On Friday in Gothenburg, we will adopt a European Pillar of Social Rights consisting of 20 principles for social and labor market conditions. I am very happy that all member countries share the vision of an open market economy combined with reliable social safety nets. That is essentially the model we have been practicing with success in Scandinavia for decades.

However, the basic feature of the Nordic model is the autonomy of employers and employees to conclude agreements on salaries and conditions through collective bargaining and collective action. It works very well, and we would not want these matters to be dictated by either national or EU legislation.

That is why Denmark had three clear red lines throughout the talks on the European Pillar of Social Rights.

First, the social pillar should not create any new legal rights or obligations. Second, the main competence for designing labor markets and social systems should remain with national governments. And third, the Nordic labor market model — and as a consequence the autonomy of social partners —should be fully respected. We have strongly insisted on these red lines, so I am very pleased that they are reflected in the document that we will adopt Friday.

A French “couvreur zingueur” or roofer in Paris | Patrick Kovarik/AFP via Getty Images

That being said, there’s more work to be done. Whereas labor market reforms and social systems are national responsibilities, issues relating to the internal market clearly require common European solutions. And there are certain aspects of free movement — an invaluable source of wealth for all EU countries — that risk undermining the support of our citizens.

The question of access to benefits, for example, is a source of widespread irritation and skepticism in Denmark. Common European rules on coordination of social security are meant to ensure that employees and their families do not lose the social protection they have earned when they move for work within the internal market.

That is fair. But the way we administer these rules can sometimes challenge the sense of fairness.

Is it fair to grant free access to very generous, tax-financed benefits from one day to the other, without any prior contribution? I believe the answer is “no.” There needs to be a certain qualification period, and I welcome the Commission’s proposal to instate one when it comes to unemployment benefits.

Is it fair to allow workers to keep certain benefits when they move to other countries for longer periods of time? Or for governments to send child benefits to children living in other countries where the benefits are worth much more? Again, the answer is “no.” I believe that a fair solution would be to index benefits that are exported to reflect the purchasing power of the country they are exported to.

Social dumping is another issue of concern in Europe — one in which we have seen important progress. In Denmark, more than three-quarters of all employees from other EU countries working for Danish companies are covered by collective agreements — almost as many as Danes. Consequently, most employees in Denmark work on Danish salary and working conditions.

And when it comes to the particular issue of posted workers, I am pleased that our employment ministers reached a balanced deal a few weeks ago. Now, we need a solution for the transport sector, which is a sector with particular challenges — especially with respect to cabotage (the right to operate transport services within a specific territory).

Surgical oncologists treat a breast cancer patient in Marseille, southeastern France | Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

It is essential that these questions are taken seriously. We risk undermining support for free movement if citizens are faced with European legislation they perceive as being unfair, not making sense or coming with unforeseen negative consequences.

I look forward to discussing fair jobs and growth with my European colleagues and social partners in Gothenburg. My message will be that we need to continue to reform and adapt our economies and labor markets to generate inclusive growth. But it will be essential that we find the right recipe: one that enables economic growth and benefits from free movement on the one hand and ensures social security and public support on the other.

If we are to move Europe forward it is of crucial importance that we don’t lose sight of our citizens in the process.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen is the prime minister of Denmark.

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