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Is a Social Europe still possible?

Last Friday we attended the Porto Social Forum in representation of Make Mothers Matter, of which we are a member. The event was organized by the Portuguese Government with the aim of reaffirming the role of social rights in the EU and giving continuity to the commitments assumed at the Porto Social Summit, held in 2021 during the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the European Union.

It was an interesting event, with optimistic interventions from Nicolas Schmit and Ana Mendes Godinho, and cautious but ambitious recommendations from some of the main civil society organizations operating at the EU level, namely the European Anti-Poverty Network, the European Alliance for Investing in Children, the European Federation of National Organizations working with the Homeless, the Lifelong Learning Platform and the Aga Khan Foundation. Overall, it was a very positive initiative, which seemed to indicate that there is a generalized commitment towards the effective development of a Social Europe.

However, it is difficult to situate the European Pillar of Social Rights in the context of the global decrease in labour and welfare standards, particularly exacerbated during the global economic and financial crisis, which greatly affected the European Union (EU). We cannot forget that countries such as Portugal, which went through extreme austerity measures, were hit particularly hard. More broadly, in the recent past the revision of the Lisbon Strategy, in 2005, was a clear neoliberal turning point for the EU and the Strategy Europe 2020 indicated a gradual replacement of the traditional conceptions of social citizenship by private responsibilities and a socially fragile active citizenship.

The reduction of the cost of labour, attained through the dismantling of social rights, was publicly assumed as the way to boost the EU’s competitiveness in a globalized world and, in 2012, the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, went as far as to declare the European Social Model dead. In this context, it became obvious that social rights collapsed when confronted with economic priorities, which was not surprising, considering the balance between economic and social policies at EU level has long been skewed in favour of the former, with the latter adopted predominantly if they were perceived as instrumental in advancing the internal market.

Now, here we are celebrating social rights in Europe. Can we have one thing and its opposite at the same time?

Social rights are, by definition, subjective and, therefore, are difficult to implement and scrutinize. Considering this, our main concern is that the European Pillar of Social Rights remains a declaration of good intensions whose implementation will be clouded by the muddy waters of EU soft law. It can easily remain a compensative instrument that will further legitimize, rather than contest, an economic ideology that produces extreme inequalities and political unrest.

It is still early to take any definitive conclusions, so for now we will have to rely on its programmatic nature and hope it will produce effective and long lasting effects that will humanize the economy and really put people first. However, we remain concerned and cautious, considering we are not experiencing these positive effects in our community, which is composed mostly of women solopreneurs. Many of these women continue to struggle hard to make ends meet in adverse economic and political circumstances that don’t seem to be improving, just the opposite. For us, the principles set out in the Pillar seem more and more a distant utopia, considering the government continues to play with unicorns, as small businesses agonize and subside.

We feel the urgency of objectively contesting the basis of capitalism and of considering an alternative economic paradigm that is in itself inclusive and democratically sustainable, instead of developing instruments that may simply attenuate some side effects of neoliberalism. But maybe we are being too ambitious; perhaps, by socializing the priorities of the EU, the Pillar represents a “renaissance of Social Europe” that can effectively produce the necessary changes. But is this reformist approach enough to guarantee a Social Europe that puts people first? Time will tell, but civil society can give this process a push in the right direction.

In order to achieve this, organizations should include empiric evidence and SMART objectives in their recommendations, both at the EU level and at the level of each member state, which can contribute to further specify the principles and targets outlined in the Pillar’s Action Plan, which are rather general. If we have a clear picture of what, when and how we wish to achieve, we will be able to effectively measure progress and move from good intensions to effective practice. These data and objectives can be formally considered and integrated in the implementation of the Pillar. Thus, social rights will not be simply an ethereal and elusive intension, but a tangible reality that safeguards European democracies from escalating inequalities and social dumping.  

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