From childhood until retirement, social policies are important at all stages of our life. Find out more about the EU legislation Parliament has been working on.
Compared to the rest of the world, Europe has the best levels of social protection and ranks highly in terms of quality of life and wellbeing. However, it faces a wide range of challenges: The effects of the economic crisis are still deeply felt in many member states and, even though things have already improved in many countries, great disparities remain within the EU. Unemployment rates are decreasing overall but vary strongly among EU countries.
Low birth rates and an aging population also challenge the sustainability of welfare systems. The working life is also substantially transforming due to technological innovation, globalisation and the rise of the services sector, while new business models in the sharing economy with more flexible forms of working are becoming more important.
As the European Commission has published a reflection paper on the future of Europe’s social dimension, read more about existing EU initiatives and what Parliament has been working on.
EU competencies on social policies
The EU has only limited competencies when it comes to social issues as most of it is up to national governments. The responsibility for employment and social policies lies mostly with the member states and their governments. This means that national governments- and not the EU - decide on issues such as wage regulations, including minimum wage, the role of collective bargaining, pensions systems and retirement age, and unemployment benefits. However, over the years the EU has developed its social dimension throughout the European integration process and the EU has come up with a series of instruments in the social sector. These include EU laws, funds and tools to better coordinate and monitor national policies. The EU also encourages member states to share best practices on issues such as social inclusion, poverty and pensions.
The Treaty of Rome in 1957 already included fundamental principles such as equal pay for women and men as well as the right of workers to move freely within the EU. To make this mobility possible, further provisions were adopted, such as rules for the mutual recognition of diplomas, guarantees regarding medical treatment when abroad and safeguards regarding already acquired pension rights.
In addition there are also EU rules on working conditions, such as working time or part-time work, as well as legislation to tackle workplace discrimination and to ensure workers’ health and safety.
Since the early stages of European integration, the European Parliament has often called for a more active policy in the social field and supported the Commission’s proposals in this area.
Assistance for the unemployed and the young
Launched in 1957, the European Social Fund is the EU’s main tool for promoting employment and social inclusion. It has helped millions of people to learn new skills and find jobs.
The European Globalisation Adjustment Fund provides support for workers made redundant as a result of changing global trade patterns when for example large companies shut down or production is moved outside the EU.
The European Network of Employment Services (Eures) is a job mobility network that provides information, guidance and recruitment/placement services to jobseekers and employers. Parliament recently approved a proposal to revamp it to better match labour market supply and demand.
A number of initiatives to tackle youth unemployment go back to Parliament proposing measures, such as the Youth Guarantee, which involves EU countries committing to ensure that young people under 25 years receive a good quality offer of employment, continued education, apprenticeship or traineeship within a period of four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education.
Members also passed a resolution asking for better skills policies to fight youth unemployment. The European Solidarity Corps, which was recently launched, aims to create opportunities for young people to volunteer or work in projects that benefit communities and people around Europe.
Fight against undeclared work
Undeclared work not only distorts the labour market, but it also means lower tax revenues for countries, meaning they have less to spend on social security. Last year MEPs approved a law to establish a European platform to enhance cooperation in preventing, deterring and fighting undeclared work.
European Pillar of Social Rights
In April 2017, the Commission presented a proposal on a European Pillar of Social Rights based on 20 key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems.
Members put forward their recommendations in a resolution, calling on the Commission to propose EU-wide rules for decent working conditions in all forms of employment, including new working arrangements such as on-demand work or work intermediated by online platforms.
Parliament also called for measures for a better work-life balance and the introduction of a child guarantee to ensure good quality education and combat child poverty, an issue that MEPs had repeatedly raised.
The European Parliament has repeatedly asked for measures to ensure a proper work-life balance and to narrow the gender pension gap. Members have recently started to work on new proposals to better reconcile work and private life and strengthen rights for parents and carers.
The EU's social security coordination provides rules to ensure that people do not lose their social security protection when moving to another EU country. MEPs are now working on a revision of the existing rules to make them fairer, clearer and easier to enforce.
MEPs are also working on the European Accessibility Act to improve accessibility of certain products and services that will help people with disabilities to fully participate in society.
Debate on the future of European integration
The Commission is publishing five reflection papers until the end of June as a starting point for a debate on the future of European integration. Each paper is dedicated to a specific theme: Europe’s social dimension, globalisation, the economic and monetary union, defence and finances. The papers contain ideas and scenarios for what Europe could be like in 2025, but no specific proposals. The initiative finishes in mid-September when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers his annual state of the union address.