BRUSSELS: Compared to the rest of the world, Europe has the best levels of social protection and ranks highly in terms of quality of life and wellbeing. However, it faces a wide range of challenges: The effects of the economic crisis are still deeply felt in many member states and, even though things have already improved in many countries, great disparities remain within the EU. Unemployment rates are decreasing overall but vary strongly among EU countries.
Low birth rates and an aging population also challenge the sustainability of welfare systems. The working life is also substantially transforming due to technological innovation, globalisation and the rise of the services sector, while new business models in the sharing economy with more flexible forms of working are becoming more important.
As the European Commission has published a reflection paper on the future of Europe’s social dimension, read more about existing EU initiatives and what Parliament has been working on.
EU competencies on social policies
The EU has only limited competencies when it comes to social issues as most of it is up to national governments. The responsibility for employment and social policies lies mostly with the member states and their governments. This means that national governments- and not the EU – decide on issues such as wage regulations, including minimum wage, the role of collective bargaining, pensions systems and retirement age, and unemployment benefits. However, over the years the EU has developed its social dimension throughout the European integration process and the EU has come up with a series of instruments in the social sector. These include EU laws, funds and tools to better coordinate and monitor national policies. The EU also encourages member states to share best practices on issues such as social inclusion, poverty and pensions.
The Treaty of Rome in 1957 already included fundamental principles such as equal pay for women and men as well as the right of workers to move freely within the EU. To make this mobility possible, further provisions were adopted, such as rules for the mutual recognition of diplomas, guarantees regarding medical treatment when abroad and safeguards regarding already acquired pension rights.
In addition there are also EU rules on working conditions, such as working time or part-time work, as well as legislation to tackle workplace discrimination and to ensure workers’ health and safety.
Since the early stages of European integration, the European Parliament has often called for a more active policy in the social field and supported the Commission’s proposals in this area.