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Sunday, June 13, 2021

EU leaders vow to protect workers amid upheaval

PORTO, Portugal — Senior EU leaders vowed Friday to help people overcome the economic damage of the pandemic and to withstand the societal upheaval caused by new green policies and digital technologies — in part by recognizing a right to lifelong learning and retraining for workers at risk of becoming obsolete.

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In theory, such a move — endorsed by leaders during a summit on social welfare policy — would extend the universal child’s right to basic education through adulthood until retirement, in an acknowledgement that secondary schooling is no longer sufficient given the turbulence of life in fast-changing, globalized and digitized economies.

In practice, it will be difficult and expensive to achieve, though one step would be a European Commission proposal for individual “lifelong learning accounts” to help workers afford to upgrade their skills or prepare for new careers.

The commitment to lifelong learning was just one policy proposal embraced by the leaders in a “social commitment” document that was also endorsed by the EU’s main confederation of trade unions, as well as other organizations representing employers, industry groups and civil society. It was unveiled during an EU leaders summit in Porto, Portugal.

In the document, leaders proclaimed that they would help citizens navigate a period of profound change, as well as to recover from the pandemic.

“Our shared ambition for a transition towards a green, socially just and digital economy will shape the livelihoods of people across Europe for the decades to come, changing amongst others consumption, distribution, production, and working patterns,” they wrote.

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“COVID-19 put a strain on our health systems and has exposed Europe to further far-reaching changes in our jobs, education, economy, welfare systems and social life, resulting in a profound economic and social crisis,” they continued, adding: “This is therefore the right moment to collectively assert and support an ambitious agenda of strong, sustainable and inclusive economic and social recovery and modernization.”

But for all the ambitious talk, there is resistance from numerous member countries to increasing the power of the EU institutions over social welfare policies that are now largely controlled by national capitals.  

As a sign of the EU’s struggles to act decisively, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her public remarks at the summit to implore member countries to complete a ratification process needed to put into action a historic €1.82 budget-and-recovery plan approved by the European Council last July.

In a speech and again during a news conference, von der Leyen urged that ratification be completed this month, allowing the Commission to go to the markets and raise joint debt for a landmark recovery fund of up to €750 billion.

The Porto summit was the first full-format gathering heads of state and government and leaders of the EU institutions, with journalists present, since February 2020, as lockdown measures disrupted democracy and forced many government meetings into videoconference format.

The meeting was a priority of Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, a social democrat, who made it the centerpiece of his country’s presidency of the Council of the EU, and it was largely intended as a follow-up to a November 2017 summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, where leaders endorsed a European Pillar of Social Rights. “Back in 2017, 20 key principles were approved,” Costa said at the summit’s closing news conference. “Now, we have an action plan.”

In addition to lifelong education, the social commitment document sets a goal of 78 percent employment for all EU adults by 2030, and calls for initiatives aimed at fighting poverty, especially among children; closing the gender pay gap; and strengthening national social protection systems.

But at various points some of the working sessions also seemed to offer a bit of group therapy for leaders who described the stresses and challenges of responding to the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“The first step that we all had to take was to react and to save jobs, to provide support to people who are maybe going to be unemployed, to keep them in work through furlough programs to find ways to support companies and enterprises whose activities are being shut down because of the pandemic,” Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said. “So the entire services industry, for example.”

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Kariņš said the difficulties were far from over.

“We see that the exporting sector is taking off in my country, but the restaurants are still closed, so some employees and some companies are doing extremely well and others are doing extremely poorly,” he said. “It’s completely disjointed. the economy is moving up but some people are being left far behind.”

He said it would be crucial to retrain workers from sectors that will never fully recovery.

“Many of those jobs simply won’t be coming back,” Kariņš said. “Providing new skills is extremely important. This is what we are focused on in our country, it is to provide new skills to people, encouraging them to shift their jobs into more productive sectors.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he hoped his government could soon return to focusing on initiatives to create new jobs rather than just save existing ones.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán warned his colleagues that citizens had a singular priority right now: coronavirus vaccines.

“Don’t forget that during this period, the most important social issue is the vaccine, to get vaccine,” Orbán said. “So if we are not able to provide vaccine for the people, there is no reasonable social policy.”

French President Emmanuel Macron started his day at the summit also focused on vaccines, trying to set the record straight in response to questions about a proposal by the Joe Biden administration to lift patent protections on vaccines. Macron insisted the U.S. was playing catch-up with Europe.

When France takes over the rotating Council president next January, Macron will undoubtedly prioritize some social issues, including pay and workplace equity between men and women, a minimum wage and special support for youth employment.

“We need a new cooperation and governance between social partners, governments and the EU,” Macron said during one of the workshop discussions. “We need more money, and be able to decide together to keep up with the big historic transformations we are experiencing.”

But he also acknowledged there was still “resistance” and “misgivings” among some European leaders, for example, on adopting a common EU approach toward minimum wages.

Orbán for his part pressed a pet misgiving about the use of the term “gender” — apparently out of concern that it refer to transgender or nonbinary individuals — and he battled with other leaders to avoid a reference to “gender equality” in the leaders’ declaration expected to be adopted on Saturday morning. The declaration now refers to “gender gaps” instead.

During one session, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg voiced support for policies promoting women, noting most of the speakers had been men. “When we speak about challenges for tomorrow, I see that from the 40 speakers we had now, we just listened to two women,” he said. “When we speak about skills I think it’s important to make more promotion for equality in skills but also in social representatives.”

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin seized on the point, saying: “I don’t mind hearing all the men, because in Finland most of the ministers in the government are women.”

Von der Leyen, in her opening speech, noted that the pandemic had put a spotlight on crucial workers who nonetheless were denied protections.

“The pandemic has revealed some of the paradoxes of our economy,” von der Leyen said. “Just think about the so-called essential workers: from the health professionals to clerks, from cleaners to delivery people. We all know now that our daily life depends on them, on their work, on the risks they take. Their contribution was priceless during this pandemic. And yet, so many of these essential workers do not enjoy the same rights and the same social security as others. Europe’s social market economy must work for them, too.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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