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EU: European Pillar of Social Rights celebrates 5th Anniversary with the first European Employment & Social Rights Forum

The European Pillar of Social Rights was officially proclaimed at the Gothenburg Social Summit of 2017 by European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. Since then, the “European Pillar” also called the “Social Pillar” has been a constant centerpiece in the EU social policy. This event was celebrated at the firs European Employment & Social Rights Forum in Brussels (16-17 November). In this article, we explain why the European Pillar is not merely a theoretic or philosophical document and why it matters for employers.

  1. What is the European Pillar of Social Rights?

The European Pillar is a collection of 20 social principles. These 20 principles are divided into three chapters: 1) Equal opportunities and access to the labour market; 2) Fair working conditions; and 3) Social Protection and Inclusion. Although the title of the document mentions ‘rights’, the Pillar is not a real legal document and the principles therefore do not contain subjective rights, but principles to which the EU and the Member States wish to strive. The Pillar is therefore a policy agenda and not a legal treaty. However, many of the principles refer to legal rights which we can find in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, in the EU Treaties, in EU secondary law, in other international legal orders and in the law and legal traditions of the EU Member States. Nevertheless, the Pillar does not contain legally binding elements and therefore it cannot be used before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The European Commission mostly uses the 20 principles in the pillar as a guiding tool for its social policy. It can lead to new social legislation, but can also lead to other (non-legal) initiatives or can be used e.g. in the European Semester, when the EU gives policy recommendations (i.a. regarding the budget, but also regarding social policy) to the EU member states.

Please find the 20 key principles of the Pillar here.

  1. What has been the impact of the European Pillar?

The Juncker Commission as well as the Commission von der Leyen have used the European pillar as one of the central elements of their policy agenda. Von der Leyen reaffirmed its importance on the Social Summit of Porto in 2021, followed by an Action plan and the adoption of the EU 2030 social targets (At least 78% of people aged 20 to 64 should be in employment; 2) At least 60% of all adults should participate in training every year; and 3) The number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion should be reduced by at least 15 million, including at least 5 million children, compared to 2019).

The Pillar has led to a renewed interest for the social domain of the EU. Some of the most important new legislation that was inspired by the Pillar include the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive, the Work-Life Balance Directive, the Whistleblowers Directive, etc. Currently the EU is working on the proposed Directive on adequate minimum wages, the proposed directive to improve the working conditions of platform workers, the proposal on pay transparency, and proposed new rules on gender balance on corporate boards. But the pillar is also implemented through all kind of policy strategies and frameworks (e.g. EU strategic framework on health and safety at work 2021-2027).

For a more extended overview of impact of the Pillar, please consult the Commission’s website.

There are rumors that there would be plans to turn the European Pillar into a legal document or even primary EU legislation. However, this process would take a lot of effort and time. And at the moment the European Pillar remain a strategic document, that can also be ignored by a next EU Commission if it would wish so.

  1. Why does it matter for employers?

The European Pillar has led to the implementation of several Directives that around this time should have been transposed by the Member States into their national legal order and are reshaping certain aspects of the national employment laws. The proposed new rules make it clear that the current Commissions keeps on using the European Pillar as the driving force behind new rules which probably will end up as EU Directives and will therefore have to be implemented by the member states (and thus by the employers) in the coming years. Therefore, the Pillar has a direct and indirect impact on the legal obligations for employers.

  1. What is the European Employment & Social Rights Forum?

The European Employment & Social Rights Forum is the annual flagship event of the Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL). It takes place for the first time this year, providing an opportunity to mark the fifth anniversary of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Speakers included i.a. Ursula von der Leyen, Jean-Claude Juncker, Nicolas Schmitt, Helena Dalli, etc.

Read more about the forum here.

Key Action Points for Human Resources and In-house Counsel

  • The European Pillar of Social Rights has led to many new EU social policy initiatives and EU employment rules.
  • The von der Leyen Commission continues to use the Pillar as a guiding strategy tool in order to take new initiatives that could lead to social legislation.
  • After five years, employers are starting to finally feel the consequences of the Pillar as the first Directives that followed out of the Pillar are now implemented by the member states.