Gezinsbond interviews European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen

Gezinsbond, the biggest organisation representing families in Flanders, interviewed European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen on the European Pillar of Social Rights, also covering worklife balance matters, the migration crisis and the need to tackle youth unemployment. Commissioner Thyssen is hopeful the Pillar will provide a new European reference framework for social and employment policy, as a way to further build the social dimension of Europe. She believes that by boosting parental leave at European level, people will understand more clearly what the European Union is.

European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen on the European Pillar of Social Rights
Interview by Geert Van Hecke & Fatima Yassir
Picture © European Union, 2017. EC – Audiovisual Service. Photo: Mauro Bottaro

“When I was working at the Unizo and Markant research centre, I regularly came across the Gezinsbond during lunchtime talks on political topics,” recalls Marianne Thyssen, speaking about the days before she began her career at the European Parliament in 1991. Since then, European policy has become her bread and butter- with a particular focus on social issues and women’s rights. As European Commissioner for employment and social affairs (among other things), she has much to say how about she intends to build up the social dimension of Europe. “For example, if we boost parental leave at European level, people will understand more clearly what the European Union is.”

A few months after Marianne Thyssen was elected as a member of the European Parliament, the Parliament approved the Treaty of Maastricht which transformed the then European Community into the European Union we know today. This treaty laid the foundations for free movement of goods and services, as well as a common currency. “It’s thanks to the internal market that we can travel so easily between European countries nowadays,” stresses Thyssen. “And how many young people have been able to spend time studying abroad thanks to Erasmus? The programme is now being extended to workers in the European Union. People who are struggling to find a job in their own area as a result of the economic and financial crisis can now look for work in another European country much more easily (the migration from Spain over the past few years is an example of this, Ed.). It might not always be simple due to family or other reasons, but the possibility is there nonetheless. The single market has also given rise to new investments and innovation, and consequently more jobs.”

This all sounds great, but some people claim that same internal market is a threat to our wellbeing, jobs and social protection.

“In the past few years Europe has had to focus primarily on the economic and debt crisis out of necessity. As a result, little has been said about the social dimension. This Commission has turned over a new leaf and is clearly showing people that Europe is good for everyone. Especially young people, who are crucial as ambassadors for promoting this European mindset. That’s why I launched the European Solidarity Corps, which grew from an idea that cropped up during a bus journey to a seminar with European Commissioners. I was sitting next to my colleague in charge of humanitarian aid at the time. The president was very enthusiastic about our proposal, so we were able to get to work straightaway. We have three useful tools to help us build a social policy: legislation, the open method of coordination, and financial resources.

With the open method of coordination we set clear targets and ensure the Member States compare policy with one another. They can then inspire each other to do better. As for legislation, there are around 60 directives and regulations on social policy, which is quite a lot. Moreover, around 1/10th of the European budget is spent on social affairs. We are pumping over €80 billion into the European Social Fund so that Member States can implement social initiatives. We are also providing €6.4 billion to the Member States to tackle youth unemployment.”

You are referring to the “Youth Guarantee Initiative”, a European scheme which has now been launched. What is this initiative, and how is it helping young jobseekers?

“Job centres need to provide young jobseekers with an offer of a job, a traineeship or further training within four months. We also have individual support to help the long-term unemployed access the job market: for example, they can make use of psychological and social coaching. The European Union supports this financially and the Member States who sign up to the initiative have to report back on it every year. We are already seeing the fruit of this policy.”

The extension of maternity leave was a less successful project: in fact, the debate dragged on for eight years

“That was such a legal minefield that we couldn’t make any progress with it. That’s why we are approaching it now from a different angle, including it as part of a broader project to promote a better work/life balance. We particularly want to remove the obstacles in the labour market that make it difficult for women to combine work and family life. At the same time, we want to recognise the important role played by fathers in families by offering them more options for taking on part of the childcare responsibilities in combination with their work. We are therefore focussing on parental leave, which more men should be able to take up. That’s why we are proposing a non-transferrable period of parental leave in all EU Member States, where each parent has the right to the same number of months of leave. This is already the case in Belgium.

We’re also planning to develop leave options for other forms of care, as parental leave only applies to those caring for their children. In our aging society, more and more people are caring for their parents. We are asking people to work longer, but at the same time their care responsibilities are increasing and they are more likely to have a relative or friend who is in need of care. If we want to continue caring for people in their own homes for as long as possible, domestic care needs to be well-organised. We have our own system of care leave in this country, but for many countries in the EU this concept is revolutionary.”

The parental leave proposal is part of the new European Pillar of Social Rights. How important is this initiative, which aims to boost the social side of the European Union?

“As a result of globalisation and the digital revolution, our way of life and working methods are inevitably going to change. These developments also have significant implications for family life. Member States will need to adapt their social protection rules to these new types of jobs and contracts. Since the debt crisis in 2008, countries have definitely been drifting further apart. This is reflected in the unemployment and poverty statistics. That’s why we urgently needed a European Pillar of Social Rights as a reference framework against which the future social and employment policy of the Member States can be measured. This Pillar is made up of 20 principles split into three main categories: access to the labour market (training, education and life long learning), good working conditions, and adequate social protection.”

What does that mean practically?

When we say access to the labour market, we’re looking at several areas such as giving adults the opportunity to improve their digital skills. That’s the only way we can keep eveyone up to speed, otherwise some people will be “priced out of the market”. The good working conditions category includes watertight contracts with clearly defined rights and responsibilities. We can’t take this for granted anymore in the age of Uber, Airbnb and so on. How do we even define employers and employees nowadays? The Commission agrees that all of these innovations should be given a chance, but they need to be governed by a new, clear legal framework. Finally, people need to know how to exercise their social and security rights in this new work environment, because not everyone benefits from adequate social protection at the moment.”

“When a proposal comes from a major organisation such as the Gezinsbond, it has a greater impact.”

Europe has just celebrated its 60th birthday, during which it strongly emphasised that social dimension. This seems unique in European history, as it’s always been the economy that has reigned supreme.

“With the Social Pillar, we are creating a new tool in Europe for building a social policy in all Member States, so that countries can grow together in a positive way. Jean-Claude Juncker (the Luxembourgish Commission President, Ed.) is hard-wired to prioritise a strong social policy. Of course, that’s something I greatly appreciate with the areas that I’m in charge of. When we celebrated 60 years of Europe in Rome (on 25th March 1957 the Treaty of Rome founding the European Union was signed, Ed.) we highlighted the social dimension of Europe. This reference framework for the future hasn’t come from nowhere. We held a broad-ranging consultation beforehand, involving civil society organisations such as the Gezinsbond. We are definitely going to take into account the responses we had: over 16,000 of them. When a proposal comes from a major organisation such as the Gezinsbond, it has a greater impact, as we know that it has already been discussed in detail. My Directorate-General has a long tradition of working together with trade unions and NGOs: that’s nothing new for us.”

But will it work, getting all 27 Member States on board for this social push?

“That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think all 27 Member States should be involved, but at the very least all of the Eurozone countries need to be involved. A federal Europe is a nice idea, but for now it remains a pipe dream. It’s important to seek solutions for problems that can be tackled at a European level. If that can be done with all the Member States, all the better. Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed the idea of the Social Pillar in 2015 in his ‘State of the Union’ speech to the European Parliament. The Eurozone countries need this Pillar now more than ever. Of course, all EU countries can join in: after all, globalization and the digital economy affect all European Union citizens. We use clear indicators to closely monitor the development of our social targets. After the economic and financial crisis which drove the EU countries apart from one another, our top priority has been to boost all the EU Member States and bring them closer together again from a social perspective.”

So Europe is 60 years old, but is there much to celebrate, what with the biggest migration crisis since World War Two, Brexit, and the increasing polarisation worldwide?

We must never forget that the European Union started off as a peace project. After two terrible wars, lots of families were living in very poor circumstances. The founding fathers of the EU were convinced that countries could grow stronger if they worked together, but they could never have dreamed that the welfare of so many citizens would increase or that peace would be guaranteed for so many years. We have been living in peace on this continent for 60 years now: what a difference from the past. Of course, the early 1990s saw the conflict in the Balkans and the first major wave of migration. But by letting the countries from that region join the EU afterwards, European stability grew. Compare that with what’s happening elsewhere in the world. There are currently 65 million displaced people worldwide. Most of the people who fled the conflict in the Middle East ended up in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. By working together, we have to be able to say “Wir schaffen das”, and play our part in solving in the current migration crisis. We were able to rebuild Europe after so much misery and suffering in the past, so there’s no reason why we can’t tackle the challenges of today together as well!”.

“We were able to rebuild Europe after so much misery and suffering in the past, so there’s no reason why we can’t tackle the challenges of today together as well!”

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