EU: PROTECTION COUPLED WITH EMPOWERMENT FOR THE FUTURE

Some points for a talk held in Zagreb on invitation of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

People nowadays are much more afraid of their future and that of their children and grandchildren. They look for securing what they have and even with some nostalgia they glorify past conditions and situations. But the world around us does not stop to move and develop further. Nevertheless the EU has to recognize that with a program of reform and big changes it could lose – even more – the citizens.

The recent EU slogan: protect, defend and empower is therefore the right answer and gives the right direction of balancing stability and change and common action and individual responsibility. Perhaps protection was undervalued in the past. Nevertheless empowerment will be very important to prepare for the future. All these tasks must be based on a concept of a Social Europe. And we must not forget that neglect of economic and social issues have their political repercussions – especially of they are mixed with different cultural factors.

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So it is certainly not only the – bad – economic situation of the past years which is responsible for the public disappointment. But together with the feeling of being left alone, being robbed of their identity the economic and social situation plays an important role. So an overall approach is necessary in finding honest answers in situations where we cannot foresee and solve all issues. But we must send out the message that politics is engaging in reducing risks and creating new chances.

What went wrong?

1. National differences resist cohesion

The EU and its proponents had always a ever stronger cohesion in their minds. But things developed not as quickly as expected. The level of economic activity and social welfare was in many countries resistant to quick changes. The expectations towards stronger welfare systems stays also very different from each other and that is also true for differences what kind of contributions towards social progress the EU could and should make. But these differences were often neglected and not dealt with in an open way.

2. Financial and economic crisis got a wrong answer

The financial and economic crisis stopped the anyway slow process of reducing income and social welfare gaps. Especially with the liberal and new-liberal answers to then extremely rising unemployment created new division or strengthen existing one. Savings in the public sector have often been overdone and the poorer parts of society where mostly the victims. And that came in addition to stagnant or even reduced incomes.

3. Care for refugee influx was not brought into overall domestic social policies

The strong influx of refugees especially 2015 enhanced in many countries the perception that new – unfair – competitors were coming and strengthening the existing insecurities. And without special extra programs of integration there was or will be increased competition for certain jobs. And often the refugees where not seen as human beings in need but as dangerous Muslims, as religious machos changing our values.

And that was particularly used or better misused by the right wing nationalists. Instead of finding common interest of all lower income groups in order to help all of them, the dividing lines have been even more marked. In addition they used the „cultural factor“ shamelessly for their political purpose.

4. Persistent unfair distribution of income, wealth and power

Especially during and due to the economic crisis a strong feeling was growing that society would get more and more unfair. The publication of the Panama Papers and then of the Paradise Papers underlined these feeling – and it is not only a feeling the fact are well known.

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What can and should be done – a realistic approach:

1. Creation of decent jobs must be in center of Social Europe

The creation of – decent – jobs must be in the center of all efforts. Some countries have been recently successful to raise the employment rate of the young. But a lot more has to be done also for women and the elder generation. In countries of emigration of the young – like in Croatia – the establishments of special programs to keep qualified people in the country are specially important.

2. Education and training as a life long partner

In view of the uncertainties and the changing demands of the labour markets education and training must be enhanced all through the EU. Education must become a life long, life accompanying process. This is part of the necessary empowerment. PISA shows that we are still lacking in many skills in relation to the US and also to China. And migration asks for new and in many countries uncommon efforts to bring them into the labour market.

3. Zero tolerance for tax evasion and tax cheating

The tolerance of tax evasion and often tax cheating has to be stopped. It is unfair and it withdraws money from use for economic and social investment. There is enough money for such investments but national governments with help by the EU must get hold of it and spend it in the interests of the needy, including for education.

4. Equal lay for equal job at same place

Fairness is also a question of fair incomes. Each job done must be paid at the same rate at the same place. That concerns the reduction of the gender gap and also internal labour migration of labour used across the national borders (Posting of Workers Directive). There must be a fair balance between the interests „locals“ and the newcomers from other EU countries.

5. Protection against risks – more security against more flexibility

Neither the EU nor member states can protect and preserve the status quo. But all the people irrespective of their income must be protected against risks like unemployment, sickness and poverty. We can only demand more flexibility, if we care for more security.

6. Instead of new national division – alliance for fair protection and empowerment

Again it is a mix of protection, defence and empowerment which must be offered. And it must be offered by the EU and its member states. Protection does not mean that the existing differences in income and social welfare must and should be preserved. But on the other hand one cannot expect from especially lower and median income groups in richer countries to agree to losses in income, jobs and social welfare. Should such losses happen then the EU and the member states have to find compensation mechanisms – like with globalization effects.

Neither the lower income groups in richer countries nor the unemployed of the low income countries should be on the losing side. Those are the people who should be united to fight for a Social Europe.  But now they are divided and put against each other by nationalists and populist on all sides.

Finally it is important to bring the European dimension into all national and regional even local policies. The EU level is not a separated one, it is an additional one closely interconnected to all fields of politics.