Foreword by Hubertus Heil
Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Federal Republic of Germany
Dear Readers, Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union comes at an exceptional time for Europe. In addition to Brexit, digital transformation and climate change, the coronavirus pandemic poses major challenges for our continent. We can only overcome these challenges by working together in a spirit of solidarity. Priority must be given to protecting people’s health in Europe as best we can. And as soon as possible after the end of the crisis, we must return to a focus on securing decent jobs, inclusive growth and a sustainable economy. In Germany and across Europe.
The European Union (EU) unites different countries that all have their own traditions, histories and economic backgrounds. “United in diversity” was therefore the right choice for the motto of our continent’s community of common values. The EU is based on the conviction that peace, democracy and prosperity are indivisible. That is why the upward convergence of living conditions within and between Member States continues to be one of the EU’s core commitments.
During Germany’s Presidency, we will do our part to continue to realise this aspiration.
Enhancing the social dimension of Europe
The economic and financial crisis of 2008/2009 was a turning point for the EU and had significant social consequences. Young people, the low-skilled and those in precarious employment suffered the most. Precarious employment increased in many countries. The gap between the rich and the poor is still wide. The consequences of the coronavirus crisis now threaten to widen the social and economic gaps between the Member States further. This is one of the greatest threats to the social and political stability of the EU.
One of the important goals of Germany’s Presidency will therefore be to enhance the social dimension of Europe. To achieve this we must establish common minimum standards in social and employment policies in the EU. All Europeans must know that they can rely on basic social protection and the right to participate in society.
Two issues are particularly important to me. First, that we establish a European legal framework for appropriate national minimum wages, also strengthening the role of the social partners; and second, that we agree on minimum income schemes everywhere in Europe that facilitate participation in society and guarantee a dignified life for all EU citizens.
Minimum wages and minimum income schemes already exist in almost all EU Member States. But the disparities between countries are still too great – and the respective minimum wages and social benefits are often insufficient. There is a great need for action in this area.
Wage floors and strong minimum income schemes are also of particular importance in times of crisis. They secure workers’ incomes, prevent social exclusion and stabilise overall economic demand. If, in the future, all EU Member States meet European minimum standards, it would be a big step towards a socially responsible Europe.
Shaping the future of work in Europe
The second major issue of Germany’s Presidency is the future of work. Europe is undergoing a structural change that is transforming our economy, the labour market and society.
We can already see this transformation in the world of work. New technologies and business models are changing how and where we work. New digital forms of work such as teleconferencing and working from home are being used more and more often. The coronavirus pandemic has significantly accelerated this trend.
„The digital transformation will not cause us to run out of work; in fact, it is likely that more new jobs will be created than old jobs lost over the next few years.“
The digital transformation will not cause us to run out of work; in fact, it is likely that more new jobs will be created than old jobs lost over the next few years. However, the work itself is changing and will demand new qualifications and skills from employees. Workers in Europe must be able to adjust to this fact.
Technological change is more of an opportunity than a risk. It is important, however, that we do not simply stand by and watch this change, but that we fashion policies to influence it – at national, European and international level. Digital technology can then spark new growth and make our lives better overall: for example, by doing monotonous, unhealthy tasks for us. It is important to me that this does not undermine our high European social and data protection standards. We must ensure that technological progress becomes social progress. Because of its size and prosperity, Europe is in the best possible position to ensure that digital transformation is socially sustainable.
This includes having common rules for the European labour market, fair employment conditions, more skills acquisition and high common standards with regard to artificial intelligence (AI). I would like to use Germany’s Presidency to take a big step forward on these issues.
Continuing vocational education and training plays a central role in this context. That is why in future, we will exchange more information at European level on the respective national continuing education and training systems. There are innovative approaches to this in several Member States already. We should learn from these approaches together. During Germany’s Presidency, I would therefore like to have a discussion on which European solutions are needed in terms of continuing vocational education and training, how we can develop a European skills strategy and how we can ensure access to digital skills acquisition.
„We must ensure that technological progress becomes social progress.“
Another important topic for our European agenda is the creation of a socially responsible platform economy. Digital platforms hold great potential for consumers, for those working on the platforms and for companies using them. At the same time, we must ensure better regulation and more transparency in responsibilities. Because the use of innovative technologies and business models must not come at the expense of our labour and social standards – we must not let digital transformation mean exploitation. That is why we will actively support the European Commission in its efforts to develop new solutions to ensure that platforms are fair.
We will also put the issue of artificial intelligence on the agenda during our presidency, because AI is fundamentally changing our private and professional lives. For me, the European path toward the development and application of AI is to shape policies to ensure AI is used in a way that makes people’s lives better. That is the standard that provides orientation for our policy making. To achieve this, we need a European AI regulatory framework that meets existing protection standards in the areas of security, liability and data protection, while at the same time promoting the innovative use of AI. We will hardly be able to achieve this as individual nation states, but the EU is ideally suited to such an immense, cross-border challenge. If we act together, we Europeans can set standards worldwide.
Decent work in global supply chains
Europe is about more than self-reflection; it also bears responsibility all over the world. As one of the world’s most important markets, we have a major influence on ensuring that our imports are not produced, for example, by child labour or under inhumane working conditions. I believe that it is our duty to use this influence, because more consumption for us must not mean less human dignity for others. Some of our European neighbours have already adopted regulatory measures at national level to require companies to have fair supply and value chains.
Germany and the EU as a whole must live up to their responsibility to ensure that supply chains are fair. I will therefore use Germany’s Presidency to promote an ambitious joint approach. At its heart is an EU action plan on “Human Rights and Decent Work in Supply Chains”. Our goal is Europe-wide binding due diligence concerning decent work in global supply chains based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Such an EU-wide standard would prevent human rights abuses in supply chains, create a level playing field and provide legal and operational certainty for our European businesses. Consumers in Europe will be able to be sure that their products have been produced fairly and sustainably. And it will help workers and manufacturers outside Europe by improving their working and living conditions.
„If we act together, we Europeans can set standards worldwide.“
The coronavirus crisis is making us aware of the interdependence in global value networks in brutal fashion. It is also exposing the deadly consequences of inadequate occupational safety, unhygienic conditions and intolerable housing for workers in manufacturing countries. The global crisis caused by the virus should thus make us reflect on how we want to shape the future course of globalisation. Fair globalisation is built on social safety nets for all, health standards and occupational safety worldwide.
Europe is facing major challenges. We will not be able to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus crisis at national level, but only by joining forces as Europeans. In these exceptional times for Europe, we will do everything in our power during Germany’s Presidency to ensure that we succeed in this and that we successfully overcome the crisis.