EU leaders vow to protect workers amid upheaval

Big ambitions for social welfare policy may collide with the reality of national capitals unwilling to cede control.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.”

Source : Politico EU More   

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Trade and beyond: a new impetus to the EU-India Partnership

Today’s meeting is an opportunity to strengthen an important international partnership.

Trade and beyond: a new impetus to the EU-India Partnership

Narendra Modi is the prime minister of India. António Costa is the prime minister of Portugal, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. 

The meeting of the leaders of the European Union and India taking place tomorrow is a moment of profound geopolitical significance. By bolstering the dialogue between the world’s two largest democratic spaces, it will provide new impetus to our partnership — with a positive effect on international trade and investment.  

India’s role as a major regional and global player is set to continue to expand over the coming years, and a strengthened partnership would offer Europe an opportunity to diversify relations in a strategic region of the world. 

The EU and India have periodically pledged to expand our cooperation, building on the architecture set out in our 1994 Strategic Partnership. But the realization of that ambition has remained a challenge compared to the opportunities offered by our economies, and the dynamics of technological development. 

The Porto EU-India Leaders’ Meeting promises to be a pivotal moment in this regard, giving new momentum to the partnership between the world’s two largest democratic spaces, made up of over 1.8 billion people. This dialogue will be crucial to rebalance relations between the EU and the Indo-Pacific. It is key for us to reaffirm our firm belief in democracy, rule of law, tolerance and the universality and indivisibility of human rights.  

We must seize this opportunity to elevate our relationship, using the huge potential of our democratic spaces to advance trade and investment ties and to support effective multilateralism and a rules-based order.   

The meeting is a chance to expand cooperation between the EU and India in new areas of decisive importance for the development of contemporary societies and economies: the digital transition, connectivity, mobility, health, the energy transition and climate action.  

The EU and India are already key partners in issues of growing relevance for the development and sustainability of our societies. Tomorrow, we will open and widen new paths of cooperation. For example, the EU and India will launch a Connectivity Partnership aiming at furthering the cooperation on transport, energy, digital and people-to-people contacts. 

The meeting is also an opportunity to give a new impetus to trade and investment negotiations between the EU and India.  

The EU is India’s biggest trading partner and the second largest destination for Indian exports. Trade between the EU and India has increased 72 percent in the last decade. The EU is also the leading foreign investor in India. Its share in foreign investment inflows has more than doubled in the last decade. Some 6,000 European companies are present in India, generating 1.7 million direct and 5 million indirect jobs. Growing investments from India in recent years have also meant active presence of Indian companies in the EU as well. 

It is the right time to resume negotiations toward an ambitious and balanced trade agreement capable of acting as a key driver for sustainable growth and jobs creation, both for India and Europe. Apart from everything else, an EU-India agreement would send a powerful signal to the world in support of the benefits of international trade cooperation.  

A similar rationale applies to investment. The negotiation of an EU wide investment protection framework would provide greater stability and certainty to companies from India and EU to expand their presence in each other’s markets. 

EU-India relations have always been marked by mutual support and solidarity. This has been evident during the coronavirus pandemic, when both have supported each other and the rest of the world. India extended medical supplies to Europe earlier and now the EU has extended assistance to India as it experiences a second wave of COVID-19. 

Portugal and India have always played a unique role in bringing the two continents together, both in the distant and recent past. Portugal hosted the first ever EU-India Summit in Lisbon, during the 2000 Portuguese EU Presidency and India hosted the eighth EU-India Summit in New Delhi, in 2007, also during a Portuguese Presidency. 

The Indian Nobel laureate in Literature Rabindranath Tagore, who was born 160 years ago on May 9, travelled extensively in Europe in different periods of his life. The great poet was a staunch believer in the principles of mutual understanding between peoples and in India’s mission to bring together the East and the West. He wrote frequently about the meeting of Europe and India, to which he attributed deep cultural, political and even personal significance: “I have felt the meeting of the East and the West in my own individual life.” 

In a similar way, the epic poem that better represents Portuguese identity narrates a journey to India. “The Lusiads” by Luis Vaz de Camões is also an account of a meeting between Europe and India.  

That makes us particularly conscious of the merits of a relationship spanning two continents and linking two vast oceans that has evolved to accompany the huge transformations in our countries and societies. It is important we do not let this moment pass us by. 

The journey together between the EU and India will be continued and advanced as of tomorrow in search of new routes of political, economic and technological cooperation, with enormous potential for mutual benefits.

Source : Politico EU More   

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