European Pillar of Social Rights: making social rights a reality for all

6 May 2021
European Pillar of Social Rights: making social rights a reality for all

There is a moment for everything. A moment for declarations of intent and a moment for action. At the first Social Summit that took place in November 2017 in Gothenburg, Sweden, under the leadership of Socialist Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, Heads of State and Government adopted a joint declaration with 20 principles for more social justice, support to employment and better educational opportunities. The European Pillar of Social Rights was born. However, since then, the intention to set our common European house on solid social foundations is still a promise in search of someone to keep it.

Three and a half years later, social rights are once again in the spotlight. The long months of the pandemic have brought existing social inequalities - such as the absence of decent minimum wages, rising gender inequalities and the persisting lack of affordable housing  - to the very surface, making the call for investments in social policies and for concrete action to implement the 20 principles more urgent than ever. Not surprisingly, 9 in 10 Europeans consider a social Europe a priority, as confirmed by the latest Eurobarometer survey on social issues.

Paradoxically, the crisis seems to offer the best opportunity for social issues to find their place back to the top of the political agenda. What is more, the Social Pillar is bitterly needed to play a central role in Europe’s recovery and adaptation to fair, green, digital transitions, and could even constitute the centrepiece in relaunching the European project. The moment has come to deliver.


From Gothenburg to Porto: putting words into action?

Moving south to Porto, all eyes are this week on the 7-8 May Porto Social Summit, where a meaningful and effective European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan should be endorsed by EU and national leaders. This is a key ambition of the Portuguese EU Presidency, led by Socialist Prime Minister António Costa, and hopes are high for the Summit  to become a historic moment of Europe’s commitment to social rights, with broad political agreement on concrete targets and a timeline in relation to the Pillar’s implementation.

Presented by the European Commission in March, the Action Plan sets out an EU-wide strategy with clear obligations to act, and three headline targets for employment, skills and social protection, to be achieved by the end of the decade: at least 78% of the population between the ages of 20 and 64 should have a job, at least 60% of all adults should take part in further training every year, and the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion should decrease by at least 15 million. These targets, which are also consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, should guide policy decisions in the Member States and their regions and should also allow to measure and monitor progress through a revised Social Scoreboard.


Social rights, part of our DNA

Putting people first by making social rights a reality for all has since many years been the main fight of the Socialist family in Europe. Thanks to Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, many key political demands that are also highly relevant for cities and regions, such as the proposed directive on minimum wages and the proposal for a European Child Guarantee, were finally put forward at EU level. “If EU leaders, the Commission and Parliament commit to a new social agenda in Porto, we can together write history and build a Europe where all workers earn a decent wage, all families can afford housing and no child grows up in poverty”, stressed Agnes Jongerius MEP, S&D spokesperson for employment and social rights and Chair of the PES Social Europe Network.

"The lack of affordable housing has grown because of the pandemic and we have many homeless people in our cities.

At the #EUSocialSummit21, we need to fight for #HousingForAll and measures to #EndHomelessness."@a_jongerius

— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) May 5, 2021

At the same time, Socialists underline that the Porto Social Summit should not be seen as a pure goal in itself. Instead, it can be the very beginning of a more far-reaching process aimed at fundamentally improving the daily life of citizens, as outlined in the declaration on the “2030 Porto Agenda for sustainable wellbeing”, adopted by the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, social partners and civil society.


Cities and regions, building social Europe from the ground

The great potential of the European Pillar of Social Rights means that many actors must contribute to turn intentions into reality. Cities and regions, which often have direct or shared competences in many social policies, are best placed to play a key role in pushing social rights forward.  In fact, many progressive cities and regions have already proven their political commitment with concrete actions and innovative solutions on the ground - be it by promoting early childhood education and care like in Vienna, ensuring social inclusion of vulnerable groups like in Rotterdam, or tackling homelessness like in Nantes.  

Children are our future and this is why we need a strong #EUChildGuarantee.

On the #Road2Porto to #EUSocialSummit21, let's get inspired by the great childcare policies implemented by cities and regions.

Join us and send your best practices!

— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) April 27, 2021

However, if cities and regions want to be successful in promoting social rights for all citizens, their role as guardians of the Pillar on the ground needs to be better recognised. This is also the main request of PES Group member Anne Karjalainen, local councillor of Kerava (Finland) and chair of the Commission for Social Policy, who is leading the work on the implementation of the European Pillar in the European Committee of the Regions.

Addressing Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa at the Committee’s plenary session, she stressed:

Europe is seeing the biggest health, social and economic crisis of a generation, a crisis that is putting European solidarity to the test. A fair recovery for Europe relies on a fully operational European Pillar of Social Rights, protecting all citizens and being applied across the Union. Local and regional authorities are key levers in the effective implementation of the Pillar, which plays a decisive role when it comes to strengthening and restoring the social resilience of cities and regions. ”

"The #EUSocialSummit21 is a great opportunity to make social issues finally a lasting priority.

We hope that the place of cities and regions in the implementation of the pillar of #SocialRights will be acknowledged in the Porto declaration."@annekarjalainen #CoRPlenary

— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) May 5, 2021

In her opinion, she makes a series of concrete requests for the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights from a local and regional perspective, including:

  • Creating quality jobs and better protecting people with new forms of employment, such as platform workers;
  • Improving the access of adults to upskilling and reskilling;
  • Making gender equality a pillar of our recovery;
  • effectively implementing the Youth Guarantee to support young people,
  • implementing the European Child Guarantee, which allows every child in the EU to have access to free education, decent housing and adequate nutrition;
  • greater provisions for decent and affordable housing, including a particular focus to end homelessness by 2030;
  • tackling the digital divide and making digital education accessible to everyone;
  • better measuring progress with the help of a regional social scoreboard,
  • prioritising the Pillar under the European Semester.


"Portugal assumed the presidency of the Council @2021PortugalEU at an historical moment.

We need to deal with the green and digital transition and implement the European Pillar of #SocialRights, leaving no one behind."@antoniocostapm #CoRPlenary #EU2021PT

— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) May 5, 2021


Building bridges

Together with the European Committee of the Regions' First Vice-President Vasco CordeiroAnne Karjalainen will represent the Committee in the high-level conference of the EU Social Summit in Porto, organised on 7 May. 

Progressive team at #EUSocialSummit21

From cities and regions to the European level, we join forces to make #SocialRights a reality and achieve a fairer Europe that leaves no people and no places behind!@a_jongerius @annekarjalainen @IratxeGarper @VascoCordeiro3

— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) May 7, 2021

Perhaps the reason why the Portuguese Presidency chose Porto over Lisbon for the Social Summit is because it beats the capital when it comes to bridges. Porto presently has six bridges across the River Douro, making people’s everyday lives easier and facilitating exchanges. Let's hope that these bridges are inspirational enough for European leaders to bridge their differences and seek convergences over the implementation of the Pillar.

If social rights are the glue that hold society together, they must become a reality for all citizens. As word-famous sociologist Zygmunt Bauman rightly put it once: “The carrying power of a bridge is not the average strength of the pillars, but the strength of the weakest pillar. I have always believed that you do not measure the health of a society by GNP but by the condition of its worst off.” Will Europe be this bridge that holds us together, by providing a strong common social pillar that gives strength to its most vulnerable components and makes sure no one is left behind? Progressive cities and regions will continue to play their part in this fight.