Photo by Pietro Naj-Oleari (CC)

Social Europe from the Polish viewpoint — is supporting the idea the right path?

By Izabela Styczyńska, Vice-President of the CASE Management Board

This article was originally published by the EU Forum and appears here with permission.

The concept ‘Social Europe’ encompasses several elements from various areas of public life, such as the labour market, social policies and law. In Poland it is presented as a very broad and nebulous idea, with no clear definition, no specific connections to European and national policies, and no scientific justification.

Social Europe: negative perception
These deficiencies cause a rather negative perception of the idea, as a majority of Poles associate everything that is linked to ‘social initiatives’ with the communist system. In addition, the concept is surrounded by foggy phrases, namely ‘social harmonization’, ‘upward social convergence’, ‘social dumping’, or ‘Junker’s social triple A’. The discussions and debates related to the above-mentioned concepts do not enable their better understanding, nor demonstrate their added value to European cohesion and growth.

The EU should be an economic chance
In Poland, the European Union per se is still perceived as an economic chance — a chance for growth, for convergence, and for building a unified, well-functioning, secure and rich society. Poland, as a country under the threat of falling into a “middle-income” trap with structural problems on the labour market, expects the EU’s expertise and unity in supporting the country’s development.

Nevertheless, Polish voices in the debate about the future of Europe are still missing at EU level. The lack of open debate on how the concept of Social Europe and all its elements will bring Poland closer to the EU average in terms of GDP per capita, or fasten convergence, makes the concept untrustworthy.

The lively debate that took place at the national level in 2015 on the Labour Mobility Package and the changes in the Posting Workers Directive, does not give any illusions. Recently, the third yellow card was given by 11 national parliaments, including Poland, on the revision of the Posting Workers Directive. Western European countries expect greater solidarity within the EU and greater fairness in the field of social affairs, while the countries of Eastern Europe focus on speeding up economic growth within EU initiatives.

The EU representatives’ lack of a common strategy for the European region is increasingly pointed out by various opinions. The perception is that they propose measures that aid in the protection of the national economies of a few selected countries and do not grant attention to broader EU challenges.

During the debate that followed the introduction of the Motion for a European Resolution for 2015, which “called for European Commission’s action to develop a social progress pact, by heading towards the convergence of social systems”, many questions remain unanswered. They include important issues that are relevant for the common understanding and faith in the fairness of ideas, namely the answers to: what would social convergence offer to Europe and the Member States in terms of economic growth? Why does convergence have to be upward? How to finance it without increasing taxes or national debts? How would it improve the economic prosperity of the region? These issues are not addressed in Poland from the EU perspective.

Clear links with concrete initiatives are missing
Apart from the nebulous idea ‘Social Europe’ and its perception as a tool for the protection of selected economies of countries, a clear connection is missing between the concept itself and the measures it encompasses. For example, the Youth Guarantee Initiative brings a lot of interest and positive responses from policy makers, individuals and companies in Poland. The implementation of the program and the number of its beneficiaries is large and foreshadows its huge success. A clearer connection of European initiatives of this type with ‘Social Europe’ would undoubtedly bring the concept closer to individuals’ everyday lives and increase its understanding.

All in all, the Polish perception of Social Europe, apart from supporting employees’ associations, is rather negative. The reasons behind it might be found in three elements: the lack of a clear understanding of the idea, the lack of a clear connection between the concept and the initiatives that it encompasses and unclarity on whether the concept will improve economic prosperity in the long run.

The arguments of “European fairness” and “European solidarity” does not and will not work in Poland. The country is still very much interested in economic growth, developing the country in catching up with its Western counterparts and offering more jobs than focusing on social convergence. The opinion is that economic prosperity and social prosperity do not go hand in hand, but that the latter is a result of the former (similarly to Scandinavian countries).

Economic and social advantages need to be presented
Therefore, it seems that if EU representatives wish to lower the current growing EU-skeptical moods, more should be done to present the economic advantages of the concept of Social Europe in the long run as well as clearer connections with practical initiatives.

A long-lasting dialogue with different stakeholders from the public, private and services’ sectors and public debate based on facts should also be build, not only in Poland but also in other Central Eastern European countries. It is only through those strategies that trust in the recent EU initiatives will be created and will bring economic and social advantages for the whole of Europe.