The EU’s social pillar, an incomplete initiative that Portugal seeks to relaunch

In November 2017, the three main EU institutions proclaimed twenty principles on equal opportunities and access to the labour market that have not yet been published.

The Portuguese six-month presidency of the European Union (EU) has set out to emphasise social policy and, to this end, intends to push forward the European Pillar of Social Rights, an initiative announced more than three years ago but still incomplete. 

In November 2017, during a summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, the three main EU institutions (Commission, Parliament and the Council, which brings together the countries) proclaimed the pillar, twenty principles on equal opportunities and access to the labour market. The text addresses policies on housing, education or social services. It contains provisions to ensure workers’ protection, the unemployed, people on low incomes, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and dependent or homeless people.

However, this compilation is not concretely developed. Already when it was proclaimed in Gothenburg in 2017, the then President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, demanded that it should not be considered “a poem”. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) also called “immediately” for the action plan for its implementation because the pillar had “very few binding legislative initiatives”, its secretary-general, Luca Visentini, reminds Efe.

However, more than three years have passed since the social summit in Sweden, and the action plan is not known. It is due to be published on 3 March. Still, the European Commission has presented proposals to implement the pillar, both during Juncker’s term of office and during Ursula von der Leyen’s. Germany committed itself to the implementation of the plan on 3 March. The German promised to present the action plan in her speech to the European Parliament before she was elected president.

Employment Commissioner Nicolas Schmit said in an interview with Efe news agency that the action plan “should be a great opportunity to bring together many stakeholders to see how we should rebuild the economy after this crisis and what is the place of the social dimension”, which “cannot be only on the margins”.

Visentini says the action plan has been postponed from January to February and finally to 3 March. Still, he believes that these delays are justified because “the European Commission wants to consult the Member States and social partners” before publishing it. Once the plan has been presented, the aim is to commit to its implementation during a new social summit in Porto on 7 May, followed by an informal meeting of state and government heads one day later.

“What we expect from this summit is that there will be a kind of joint commitment co-signed by the Portuguese presidency, i.e. António Costa, the prime minister; (Commission) President (Ursula) von der Leyen, and the social partners on our support for the action plan,” says Visentini. He adds that the next day “also the member states should agree on a kind of joint declaration in which they agree to implement the plan”.

“All this is quite promising for the pillar because it ensures that it is not just about the goodwill of this or that Commission, that this or that government does something to implement the social pillar, but that there is a general commitment involving the European institutions, the member states and the social partners,” he says.

According to the presidency’s website, Portugal has included among its priorities the implementation of the pillar “as a key element to ensure a just climate and digital transition”. Lisbon is committed to “giving concrete meaning to the European Pillar of Social Rights in the lives of citizens” and to organising the Porto summit to provide “political impetus” to the implementation of the document and the action plan.


From the European employers’ organisation Business Europe, its Director of Social Affairs, Maxime Cerutti, tells Efe that the action plan “needs to prioritise measures that support employment and deal with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis”. In this sense, he proposes improving “the efficiency” of public employment services and emphasises improving the quality and effectiveness of vocational education and training provision and involving employers in this task to update the curricula and skills of employees, given the transformations in the labour market.

He also believes that the European Semester process, the economic coordination cycle through which Brussels issues recommendations to countries, “should be at the heart of the action plan”, as in his opinion it is “the right instrument to implement the Pillar”.

He also points out that the initiatives included in the action plan “must be carried out at the appropriate level, bearing in mind that the European Union, the Member States and the social partners have clearly defined roles about social policy, as laid down in the treaties”. Indeed, it stresses the importance of taking action “as close as possible to the stakeholders”, such as companies and workers. He also considers it “essential” that in the coming months, before the Porto summit, the Commission and the Council work with employers and workers to identify priority issues.

“The first scenario is that the action plan to be proposed by the European Commission is the result of a quadripartite exercise in which the Commission, the Council, employers and European trade unions move towards a shared understanding of what constitutes European added value in terms of social and employment policies”, he explains, adding that the second scenario would occur if the Community institutions propose actions that divide the social partners.

The trade unions

The ETUC’s Secretary-General, Luca Visentini, believes that, despite the actions that Brussels has been announcing, the action plan is still necessary because his organisation seeks to “commit, in particular, the Member States, not just the Commission, to do something on the ground to implement the pillar”. Among his priorities for the plan, he mentions the transposition into national legislation of social standards that have already been agreed at the EU level.

Secondly, he stresses the importance of EU legislators (Parliament and countries) adopting new initiatives, such as the one on minimum wages that the Commission presented in October. He also calls for a directive on platform workers or European legislation on teleworking.

He also believes that European legislation is needed to ensure responsible behaviour by companies, particularly multinationals, concerning respect for workers’ rights, including trade union and social protection rights. He adds that this point is also relevant in the context of restructuring processes during the pandemic and the digital and ecological transition, which “should not leave workers unprotected” or “lead to large-scale redundancies”.

“Many things should be included, at least as a direction, as a roadmap,” he says while acknowledging that there are “some member states, but also some business organisations, that are more reluctant than others to commit to proper implementation”.

He adds that, for this reason, the Portuguese presidency “is very cautious in the way it proceeds” and is not asking each member state to “endorse the action plan”, which will be a unilateral communication from the Commission. It recognises that general commitment to the action plan “is less binding, but at the same time it is the only way to achieve unanimous consensus”.

On the other hand, to raise awareness of the pillar among the population, he calls on governments to “own” the action plan and implement it at the national level to ensure that it reaches “reality”. “There is a need (…) to make people understand that something positive can come out of this,” he says.