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Interview 5 May May 2021 1248 5 May 2021

Nicolas Schmit: my roadmap for the new European Social Economy

A conversation with the EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Rights on the eve of the European summit in Porto to discuss the Social Pillar Action Plan

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Four years ago, the European Parliament, Council and Commission all proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights at the Gothenburg Summit in Sweden. Twenty principles and rights essential for labour markets, structured around three chapters: equal opportunities and access to the labour market; fair working conditions; and social protection and inclusion.

The European Commission presented the Social Pillar Action Plan on 3 March, tracing the specific steps for implementing the 20 principles of the Pillar. This is all part of the concerted effort by EU countries to secure a socio-economic recovery through a solidarity-based and inclusive economy. The Pillar's vision calls for basing the twin green and digital transition on a sound prospect of a social economy.

The Social Pillar Action Plan is an initiative championed by Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights in the von der Leyen Commission. Schmit himself was at the centre of a debate organised by Vita non profit, with the participation of Luca Jahier, previewing some positions that will be taken at the Porto summit on 7 May.

There is a need for reskilling, there is a need for upskilling, there is a need for lifelong learning

Adopting the Social Pillar, Schmit explained, marks a turning point because it ushered in a new approach to European policies. The Commission has been very insistent since 2007, sending "strong signals on developing the social dimension, such as the minimum wage". The Social Pillar, explains the EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Rights, lays down a very important underlying principle "indicating how our social protection system should be organised".

The task before us now is to translate these principles into concrete practice through the Action Plan. Schmit nevertheless reminds us that the plan has certain imperative priorities.

First priority: employment. "We are in a crisis, we are living in a time of rising unemployment, especially youth unemployment". It is therefore a question of "encouraging Member States to do more, to have active employment policies".

Second priority: gender equality. The Commissioner stressed that this issue is closely tied to employment policies, because women still have very low employment rates in some Member States, including Italy. These countries, Schmit points out, "must be encouraged to redesign their social policies, working on everything that contributes to reducing the gender gap in employment".

Third priority: technological and environmental transition. We are "in the throes of a major economic transformation, yet we are also on the eve of a green transformation and a digital revolution". While many jobs will disappear, new ones will arise. We need to focus on people, concentrating on areas that are already proving to generate new employability.

Investing in education and vocational training are efforts we must make to get out of the crisis

A prime example given by Schmit relates to batteries, a sector "set to create thousands of jobs, yet one of the main concerns of manufacturers is: will we be able to find the talent needed for this new industry? Do we have the right people? There is a need for reskilling, there is a need for upskilling, there is a need for lifelong learning".

A second example refers to "identifying concrete measures to facilitate the development of social organisations and social enterprises". A development that will inevitably need to tap into the digital dimension, which "is not only for high-performance companies, but is also the responsibility of the social economy to innovate".

We talk a lot about platforms and, the Commissioner stresses, "we complain that platforms very often fail to observe basic social and labour rights. Now there are cooperatives creating platforms, guaranteeing the social rights of the people working on them. There is therefore a clear alternative that is performing well economically while also advocating adherence to basic social rights".

Finally, we need to reduce inequalities to eradicate incipient poverty. "The Commission will put a lot of emphasis on this issue, with a particular focus on child poverty".

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently reiterated that the social market economy must be at the heart of Europe's post-COVID choices. It is a question, says Schmit, of "combining an efficient, competitive and innovative economy with an economy that has very clear social objectives".

And in Italy? The Commissioner states that Italy "has been deeply afflicted by the pandemic, yet it has also grappled with extremely low growth and a stagnant economy for too long. I think that now we have an opportunity to relaunch important investments, modernise the economy, modernise social systems and also public administration".

Europe has chosen the path of solidarity, building a plan for recovery and resilience. Now, he concludes, "each Member State must work to make really useful and efficient use of these funds: investing in education, investing in skills, investing in vocational training, and striving to reduce regional imbalances. These efforts are extremely vital for Italy, yet they are also important for Europe". To come out of the crisis stronger, fairer, more inclusive and more social.

Photo Credits: Schmit Flickr_European Union 2019

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