Welfare and Social Issues

A Tough Fight On Social Issues

From the Youth Guarantee to the EU’s annual growth survey, the Greens played a key role in reinforcing the awareness on the dramatic social consequences of austerity. The fight was hard fought against all those who used the crisis to justify a weakening of social protection.

GEJ: How do you assess the evolution of the debate on social issues during the closing sessions of the current European Parliament term? Were the answers that were given to the consequences of the crisis sufficient? And what was the role of the Greens in this discussion on taking up the social challenges of the crisis?

Jean Lambert: It has been a major fight. It’s been a fight just to maintain social issues, whether on social security or wider on access to services as part of the political landscape. On the answers that we’re getting on crisis, joblessness, we are beginning now to see something of a way forward. But if you think of the earlier part of the parliamentary term, with a lot of the discussion around how to maintain the stability of the euro, there was an enormous emphasis being put on the economic side of things: ‘How do we deal with the currency?’ Not, ‘How do we actually deal with the people using the currency?’ The Parliament has really had to fight its way in to that debate, whether that was Parliament fighting to even be part of the 2020 strategy or to be part of the discussion about what the Troika was doing – where was the social dimension on that? Why wasn’t Parliament even being involved in this discussion in any particular way? Let alone civil society. So these have been some of the markers.

Struggle for a focus on social rights

What was the role of the Greens within this?

We have actually had quite a significant role, partly because the Greens who sit in the economic committee, the Monetary Affairs Committee, have an interest in and an understanding of the social dimension, like Sven Giegold, Philippe Lamberts and Pascal Canfin. But also in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee we’ve had a really strong team of Greens. Right from the beginning, Tatjana Ždanoka has been alerting us to the total lack of any sort of social conditionality in what was being done in Latvia, which was a precursor of what we’ve seen by the Troika. Marije Cornellissen did really excellent work buying into that in terms of ‘What we were going to do with the European semester and the annual growth survey (a Commission-led process of increasing economic coordination between Member States)?’ The Greens were first off the block in talking to civil society about their perspective on the national reform plans and the annual growth survey from the Commission. The report Marije Cornelissen authored in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee, on the annual growth survey, worked very strongly with the economic affairs committee rapporteur. And that has become part of the framework for how Parliament now deals with the annual growth survey. We’ve been very strong there, partly because we had already done background research as a political group. And when it came up in the employment coordinators we could say, ‘Look, we’re ready. We’ve got this.’ And we were lucky to manage to get that report. So Greens have set the framework.

We were very aware that the Youth Guarantee is not a silver bullet which could solve all the problems. But it is a mechanism that we can offer to help young people stay in contact with the labour market, to feel that they are important to our future.

The Greens have played a key role in the discussion on the Youth Guarantee, yes?

Yes, the Youth Guarantee that was another opportunity we took up. Every year within the Employment-Social Affairs Committee the coordinators put forward a number of ideas for genuine initiative reports and a number of us had put forward the idea about having a report on the situation of youth unemployment. When it came to actually handing out the report no other political group put their hand up so we said we’d take it. For that report, we allocated Emily Turunen from Denmark, who was the youngest Member of Parliament. She did a really thorough report. What’s come through from that has partly been the quality internships, but also the Youth Guarantee being put forward at the European level. We were very aware that the Youth Guarantee is not a silver bullet which could solve all the problems. But it is a mechanism that we can offer to help young people stay in contact with the labour market, to feel that they are important to our future. It went through in the Parliament. Emily did a lot of work with the Commission, in helping to shape what the Youth Guarantee might look like at the European level.

The social rollback of the governments

Was there an evolution on social issues during this time period?

Things have moved in this legislature, in some of the different political parties. From the beginning the Greens have been very aware of the social dimension that obviously you would expect parties of the left to be. Then we’ve seen a growing understanding across the Parliament about the devastating effects that a lot of the measures that have been taken have had on the very structures of our society. Last year I did a report on access to care for vulnerable groups in times of crisis, which certainly in its original form was quite a tough report. It basically said that austerity measures are incompatible with a social Europe. And it went through in the employment committee, and albeit without the reference to incompatibility with austerity, the rest of that report went through pretty well untouched in the plenary with an enormous majority of over 500 votes. This means that people across the Parliament have come to realise that even if you want to balance budgets, that what has happened in the EU has been dramatic, and has cut far too far, far too fast in many countries. And that we’re actually destabilising our own future with some of the measures taken.

You’ve had a social roll back on that under the Troika in programme countries. And what we’re hearing from social partners is that it will take a long time to really re-establish that.

So there is no social roll-back?

Well… I think there still is. Because while people might be very concerned about the dramatic social effects, such as the lack of access to healthcare in Greece and very high levels of youth unemployment in so many countries, a number of governments are still making pretty dramatic cuts and looking for all sorts of changes in the name of the crisis, but which I think they would do anyway. Obviously a prime candidate for that is the UK. We still have, and you can see it in some of the votes, this question about what constitutes red tape in the labour market. There has been no movement on the Working Time Directive in this entire five years. If you look at what’s happened with the Maternity Rights Directive, which hasn’t gone anywhere. Or in terms of social dialogue. You’ve had a social roll back on that under the Troika in programme countries. And what we’re hearing from social partners is that it will take a long time to really re-establish that. So in the Parliament, what we managed to do is a bit of holding on. I wouldn’t say we’ve actually been making progress.

How do you see the challenges of the next Parliament?

Well, if the forecasts about the outcome are correct, there will be a difficulty in the next Parliament, in terms of forward movement on a number of social issues. We’ll probably see certain Directives back for revision and so on. Basically the two largest political groups will look to each other to form an easy majority. There will certainly be some questions about what a larger GUE (the European Left Grouping) will do. Because if we’re going to see any sort of social progress it may well be that their votes are going to be necessary to get that. So are they going to accept something that is better than what we’ve got, or wait for perfection? There’s a degree of pressure there as well. Given that we still have the climate crisis growing, if we’re really looking at where are the new jobs, where’s the investment got to come from, it is going to be a struggle. And it’s going to be a struggle linked with the environmental dimension. If you look at some of the people who didn’t support backloading of the emission trading system ( a reform to improve the effectiveness of the system), part of their reason for not doing that was that they were nervous about job losses in their own Member States. So I think this issue about how potential job losses as opposed to job gains plays against the environmental agenda is going to be a very important one in the next Parliament. And there, I don’t see that as necessarily a left-right issue, but as an issue between different countries and their own political programs.

And their industrial structures…

And their industrial structures. Because you saw the Spanish Socialists, the Spanish Popular Party, abstaining on backloading. This was a national issue, in terms of protecting the jobs that you have, instead of believing you can find investment to create new jobs which will last a lot longer.

Priority: tackling poverty by reducing inequalities

The top priority for the next time period?

One of them has got to be to make sure that we don’t lose any of the gains that we made in terms of bringing that stronger social dimension into the annual growth survey. We have implemented indicators there now. We’ve got the Commission looking at the national reform programs on a much more organised basis, on social dimensions. We can’t lose that. We’ve really, really got to keep that. That’s been such a struggle. The second thing I think we need to do is start looking a lot of these issues, not through a dimension necessarily about jobs, but an issue about poverty and wellbeing. Because even if we’re looking at job creation in new sectors, even if we’re trying to develop care sectors, there will still be a lot of people who will not be in work. Either because they’re too young, too old, maybe have other factors which mean they can’t work, what do we do? So this is more about how do we reduce those inequalities in society and really actually start dealing with the issues of poverty. This is about social structures and the social benefits. That shift towards tackling poverty by reducing inequalities is a major issue for us.

Just a final question. Is it possible for the English and Welsh Greens to be identified as an alternative to the mainstream parties in the UK, with this vision that you have just described?

I think so. We’ve been pigeonholed as Greens elsewhere have as “you’re only about the environment.” As if the environment isn’t our life support system. But in reality we have done a lot of work on a lot of the social issues. For example during the European year of anti-poverty we were the only party in the UK that was visible. The consistent work that we’ve done in the Parliament here, the links that we’ve got with civil society and trade unions, that are really beginning to question whether certain parties really want to go forwards, or whether they recognise the climate dimension as well. And we’re seeing a lot more trade unions recognising that this isn’t just about jobs, this is actually about climate jobs. The Greens have a strong record in the UK as well in opposing a lot of the austerity measures, opposing the cuts from the British Government. So I think that increasingly the Greens have a social identity that links with the environmental one in the UK.

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