The idea that tweaks and nudges will guide Europe to a sustainable future holds no water. Climate change conditions the very economic and industrial options at hand. Without a just transition programme unifying responses to social crises and environmental collapse, neither will be resolved. But this can be an opportunity, and trade unions have a new role to play. As part of the Green European Journal’s coverage of the fundamental trends that underlie the May European elections in 2019, Philippe Pochet, a figure at the centre of trade union thinking on the EU and author of A la recherche de l’Europe sociale, outlines a radical vision for socio-ecological transformation. Fleshing out the rallying cry that the ‘end of the month’ and the ‘end of the world’ are to be tackled as one, the traditional call for a social Europe finds new force for the 21st century.

Since 2005, Europe has lacked a single rudder for social policy. The implicit division of labour between Europe and the nation state has been as follows: Europe looks after market efficiency while member states deal with the redistribution of wealth (usually relying on a trickle-down approach). But, in practice, the paradigm upheld by this set-up increasingly looks like Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek-style liberalism in every respect. Between 2005 and 2013, under José Manuel Barroso’s presidency of the European Commission and with a political landscape dominated by the neoliberal right, social policy reached a low ebb.

However, from 2013 onwards, there were the beginnings of a Europe-wide rebalancing of power between left and right. But, as seen in France with the François Hollande presidency, this did not bring radical change to the social and employment policy agenda. It is in this context that several new, more social issues emerged following the 2014 European elections and the new Commission presided over by Jean-Claude Juncker. 

At the European level, the political situation is one very much shaped by the debate on Brexit, a vote that rejected a Europe that is not social and against rules on freedom of movement seen as too lax. Elsewhere, the protest vote for populist parties based on a rejection of the EU or migrants and asylum seekers is growing. In political terms, social democracy is collapsing to an unprecedented extent. Distrust of social-democratic parties is particularly marked in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Italy. In a political context that has not fundamentally changed (i.e. with a right-wing majority in most European countries), doubts are emerging and fears growing about the future of European integration. Yet paradoxically, this difficult situation has rekindled debate about the future of Europe, particularly its social dimension. But this debate is not about a structured plan to build a strong social Europe. Rather, it lies in an analysis that sees the risks for the European project failing as a whole unless it does more for the conditions in which people live and work.

The debate on climate change provides a window of opportunity for social justice.

It has led to the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights, a set of rights and principles covering 20 areas [read more on the European Pillar of Social Rights]. The ‘pillar’ is based on 20 principles articulated around three major themes: equal opportunities and access to the labour market; fair working conditions; social protection and inclusion. It is a dense affair, comprising fifteen or so documents with little clarity or priority. Some proposals such as on work-life balance, employment contracts, access to social protection, or the creation of a European Labour Authority make for a first sketch of a work programme. A further ambition is for the pillar to influence reforms to monetary union and the European Semester system, which coordinates the economic policy and budget plans of EU member states, to ‘inject’ the social dimension.

In this context, one possibility would be to try to use the European elections to strengthen support for a strong social dimension and a more balanced economic model. In some ways, it is the fantasy of a return to the Jacques Delors era of a very powerful European Commission. The demands that make up the call for a social Europe are well known and been the same for years. Yet this approach lacks not only ambition but also a correct reading of an historic moment. Where the world finds itself today instead calls for a radical re-reading that places the environmental and climate crisis at front and centre while also forcing us to see it as a social issue above all.

Though climate and social issues are intimately linked, national and European politics address them as separate. Rather than treating climate change policies as a distraction from urgent social issues (an ageing society, growing income inequality, immigration, etc.), those working in social policy should view the climate emergency as an increasingly present reality that opens up opportunities for lifestyle changes, including in areas that are known to be resistant to change.

The debate on climate change therefore provides a window of opportunity for social justice. It is a chance to take a fresh look at these questions and see them in a new light. In doing so, we can think about the environment and the ecological transition positively rather than punitively. We can address the question of employment, not just in terms of job creation but job destruction too and the response it requires. Climate change is also an opportunity to address the quality of jobs, as well as the quality of life in general.

the unity of social and climate action will find long-term coherence as part of the movement for a just transition

The role of unions will be to construct a new narrative of social and ecological transition that is no longer based on old alliances, which were principally organised around wages and working conditions. We must recognise that the trade union battles of the last 30 years have often ended in defeat. These defeats happened for different reasons and at different times, but the overall direction is clear and repeating the same strategies which failed in the past has little chance of success. This transition opens a new space which revives the debate while offering continuity on the quality of work and public services. It is also in keeping with longstanding demands for the onshoring of production; short food supply chains and locally made goods will support communities and be more sustainable. Carbon costs can, for example, be an argument against offshoring to faraway production sites.

To make the case for a radical socio-ecological transformation of the European project, building coalitions will undoubtedly be the hardest part. Green movements, still relative newcomers regarding social issues, have a role to play here. What should be the strategy for kickstarting both technological changes and shifts in collective behaviour? Beyond acknowledging the facts to move to effective action, that remains the key question. In my opinion, the unity of social and climate action will find long-term coherence as part of the movement for a just transition.

Further reading: Philippe Pochet, A la recherche de l’Europe sociale, May 2019, Presses Universitaires de France (PUF).

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