Much ado about the Social Summit?

by Graça Enes (Faculty of Law of the University of Porto and CIJE)

The Porto Social Summit was the high point of the Portuguese Presidency, a two-day event (May 7-8th) intended to achieve a strong commitment from Member States, European institutions, social partners, and civil society towards the implementation of the Action Plan for the European Pillar of Social Rights[1]. Several side events occurred along the weeks before the Summit, in Portugal and elsewhere[2], anticipating the debate.

In the days before, important members of the Portuguese Government made public statements stressing the ambition of the event. Ana Paula Zacarias, the Secretary of State for European Affairs, stated that the Porto Social Summit could “move principles to action”.

On May 7th, the Summit webpage announced: “Porto Social Summit starts today, defining EU policies for the next decade”. The stakes were high.

During the afternoon of the first day, a High-Level Conference was held for an extended debate, involving members of the Commission, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Council, Heads of Government, and social partners. In addition to the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, issue that was addressed by the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmitt, the discussion focused around three major subjects: work and employment; skills and innovation; welfare state and social protection. The participation in the debate went beyond the European Union, with the presence of the Director-General of the International Labour Organization and the Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The works of the conference were live streamed, and everyone could follow the debates taking place at the Alfândega building. At the opening session, António Costa declared: “We are here today to renew the European social contract, making a commitment, each one at their own level, to develop innovative and inclusive responses”. At the end of the day, Ursula von der Leyen stated: “The Porto Social Summit is our joint commitment to build a social Europe that is fit for our day and age and that works for everyone”. The tangible outcome of this debate was the “Porto Social Commitment”[3], an encompassing compromise of the EU institutions, Member States and European social partners that was being prepared for weeks and was solemnly presented by the three Presidents on the evening of May 7th.

On May 8th, the European Council gathered in an informal summit that also included a High-Level meeting with the Prime Minister of India to revive the stalled trade negotiations with that State. That informal meeting of the Heads of Government was summed up in a political statement prepared by the President of the European Council: the “Porto Declaration”[4].

No doubt that these events have a high symbolic value, in line with the other Portuguese presidencies (v.g. the CAP reform, in 1992; the Lisbon Strategy, in 2000; and, of course, the Treaty of Lisbon, in 2007). The success and reach, however, have yet to be proven.

There was a much-noticed absence of Angela Merkel (also absent were the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and the Prime Minster of Malta), decreasing the political impact of the initiative[5]. There was disagreement over the text of the final Declaration of the Heads of State. Hungary and Poland refused to recognize “gender gaps” as a general problem to fight against, yet admitting the issue about employment, pay and pensions; the rest of Member States accepted a vaguer commitment “to promote equality and fairness for every individual in our society, in line with fundamental principles of the European Union and principle 2 of the European Pillar of Social Rights” (“Gender equality”). Words do matter, after all.

A Tale of 2+1 Documents[6]

The “Porto Social Commitment” and the “Porto Declaration” are the latest results of an endeavor almost a decade long, with its high point in the Proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, in Gothenburg, on November 17th, 2017.

The “Porto Social Commitment” is a proclamation subscribed by the Heads of the major European social organizations – the European Trade Union Confederation, BusinessEurope, SGI Europe, SMEunited, Social Platform -, the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Parliament, and the Portuguese Prime Minister, as President of the European Council.

The document was prepared by the Portuguese Presidency and the Commission and sets the ambition high aiming at “an inclusive, sustainable, just and jobs-rich recovery, based on a competitive economy and that leaves no one behind”. It follows and intends to push forward the Action Plan proposed by the European Commission in March 2021, and subscribes the objectives set for 2030: 78% of Europeans employed; 60% in training annually; taking out of poverty at least 15 million Europeans. The efforts are to be focused “on equal opportunities, access to quality services, quality job creation, entrepreneurship, up- and reskilling and reducing poverty and exclusion”, reminding that the European Pillar of Social Rights is a “compass” for the needed social policies at national level.

This commitment seems to bring together, as like-minded partners, workers, and patronage, to give their blessing to EU initiatives.  Could this be the “corporativist” dream of ending the “class struggle”? The protests organized by the Portuguese unions’ confederation CGTP, and especially the vague proposals allowing for different interpretations, and the absence of binding value do not comfort that view. Instead, this may be viewed as a high-profile result of the tripartite dialogical character of the European social model, but firmly constrained within the limits imposed by the European treaties and the political will of Member States.

Does this broad and vague commitment substantiate a uniform European social model? It is doubtful. The social commitment is to rest on a “coordinated European approach (…) for solution-oriented actions while taking account of the diversity of national systems” that goes “hand in hand with strengthening the European Social Model, so that all people benefit from the green and digital transitions and live with dignity”. All in all, the European social model is more of an idea of society concerned with human dignity than a social policy system. A society where the State plays a central role along with social partners but through a diversity of social systems, almost as many as Member States. In juridical terms, this corresponds to the division of competences between the EU and Member States and to the limits assigned to the Union by the Treaties, namely restricting, and excluding legislative harmonization.

Social policy remains mostly and firmly a national competence. The principle of subsidiarity is also reminded, as well as the caution with the “administrative burden” on SME. That is why the claims are mainly directed at the European Council and Member States.

It seems that it was the Covid-19 pandemic that created momentum for this compromise. The pandemic is mentioned six times and the “unprecedented times” we are living. Many of the claims are expressly aimed at the recovery form the crisis caused by the pandemic. One wonder if when the pandemic “catalyst” is over the common will to move forward the social agenda will fade away. The impact of this crisis was not asymmetrical, as with other crisis, but it was unequally severe for Europeans and recovery will be differentiated too. The word “solidarity” is not found in the “Porto Social Commitment”.

What we have witnessed in the approach followed by the Commission and undersigned at the Porto Summit is the inclusion of the social in a wider agenda. It is not only the safeguard of competitiveness of European economy, always present, now it is the green and digital transition that frame and condition the development of the social agenda.

The “Porto Social Commitment” is a landmark because with this act European actors confirm they share the same social values, agree to follow the same objectives and general goals over equal opportunities, quality job creation, decent wages, reducing poverty and exclusion. The content of these certainly varies between social partners and Member States. No concrete compromises are assumed, including about legislative proposals already put forward, like the “minimum wage directive”. In a few words, this is a pledge of good intentions.

In fact, strengthening the social dimension of European integration faces many challenges. For one, many European actors, from Governments to social partners, do not envisage social policy as a European Union priority, but also there are political differences among governments. Eleven Member States’ Governments (Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands and Sweden) presented a “Non-paper Social Europe”[7], a joint statement to make clear that policies like labour and employment, pensions, education and childcare are to remain firmly within national realm, leaving to Europe only complimentary action and reminding that the European Pillar of Social Rights is a political guide and a promotor of good practices between Member States with “careful consideration of national starting points, challenges and institutional setups”. The sharing of aims and targets does not mean the sharing of a single path.

The “Porto Declaration”, published in the afternoon of May 8th, presents the conclusions of the informal meeting of the European Council. It expressly states the promise “to work towards a social Europe”, again recalling the “distinctive European social model”. Even sparse, there are some hints about that vague model: social cohesion and prosperity in unity and solidarity and built upon a competitive social market economy. The “Multiannual Financial Framework”, approved in July 2020, and the specific Recovery effort under “Next Generation EU” are the means for its implementation. In this Declaration, the members of the European Council “take note” of the results of the Porto Social Summit, consider the European Pillar of Social Rights as a fundamental element of the recovery, recognize the Action Plan proposed by the Commission, welcome the targets for employment, training and poverty reduction and the revised Social Scoreboard, including its monitoring within the European Semester.

This document goes further in the concrete recognition of some problems faced by European workers at present and the need for adequate measures, stating “changes linked to digitalisation, artificial intelligence, teleworking and the platform economy will require particular attention with a view to reinforcing workers’ rights, social security systems and occupational health and safety.” A special commitment is made to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable social groups such as the long-term unemployed, the elderly, persons with disabilities and the homeless, to fight discrimination and work actively to close gender gaps and to support young people. Nevertheless, no programme nor any specific measure is foreseen and there is not even a reference to the proposals already made by the Commission. The “due regard for respective competences [of Member States and the EU] and the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality” are underlined.

It is obvious that the “Non-Paper of the eleven” has watered-down the ambition of the Portuguese Presidency and the Commission. Soon we will find out if the pledges inscribed in the “Porto Social Commitment” and in the “Porto Declaration” are to be more than words[8]. First, with the fate of the minimum wage directive or the ambitious plan of the Commission for a European Health Union. The most important result of the “Porto Social Summit” was to keep the “social” at the centre of the European agenda, responding to the wishes of 88% of Europeans[9]. The Conference on the Future of Europe[10] that was inaugurated on May 9th will continue the conversation on its possible features.


[1] https://www.2021portugal.eu/en/porto-social-summit/

[2] https://www.2021portugal.eu/en/porto-social-summit/side-events/

[3] https://www.2021portugal.eu/en/porto-social-summit/porto-social-commitment

[4] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/05/08/the-porto-declaration/

[5] The German Chancellor was also absent in Gothenburg when the European Pillar of Social Rights was adopted.

[6] We paraphrase the title of Charles Dickens book “A Tale of Two Cities”, but with no intended connection, even though it is fair to say that nowadays we too find ourselves to live in “the best of times” and in “the worst of times”, in “an age of wisdom” and in “an age of foolishness”, as Charles Dickens wrote in the first sentence of his book.

[7] This “non-paper” was made public on the site Politico: https://politico.eu/article/porto-summit-11-eu-countries-national-authority

[8] Hence the title, inspired in Shakespeare play “Much ado about nothing”, expression used to describe an unimportant situation that caused a lot of fuss.

[9] Special Eurobarometer on Employment, Society, culture and Democracy, May 2021, https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2266

[10] https://futureeu.europa.eu

Pictures credits: jarmoluk.

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