The Progressive Post

The Declaration of La Hulpe: an ambitious social agenda for the next five years

Minister of Social Affairs of Belgium

On Tuesday 16 April 2024, member states, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee, European social partners and civil society signed a declaration on the future of the European Pillar of Social Rights. This was a very important day.

I hesitate to say that it was a historic day, because this would be such a cliché. Rather, it was a day of high ambition, of necessary ambition. The Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU was bound to be ambitious at this critical juncture, at the end of the current legislative cycle and at the beginning of a new one. At such a strategic moment, you must look back and, simultaneously, think ahead about the next agenda for the European Union, the next European Commission and the next European Parliament.

Looking back, we can indeed be proud of what has been achieved at the European level during this legislature. However, despite these achievements, Europe faces challenges which require us to take further action. Actions to prepare citizens, workers and employers. Actions to care for citizens, workers and employers. And actions to protect all those who need protection. Europe also needs to be seen to prepare, seen to care and seen to protect. This is one reason why such a solemn declaration is important. But there is more to the La Hulpe declaration than this important political signal.

With this declaration we want, first, to indicate – together, on the basis of consensus – the way forward to navigate today’s challenges and shape adequate policy responses. In this endeavour, we need the European Pillar of Social Rights to ensure that no one is left behind when we do that navigating. Second, the Declaration defines a modus operandi, which builds on social dialogue as a fundamental component of the European social model and recognises the importance of civil society in our democracies. Third, we do not only recommit to the European social model and reaffirm the Pillar as our European social rulebook. With this Declaration we also identify substantive priorities for the next EU legislative term.

We commit to taking action to foster fair and effective labour mobility across the European Union, by improving the ability to detect fraud and abuse, by improving working and living conditions, for EU and third-country nationals, with special attention to measures in the areas of sub-contracting and agency work, and by improving access to information for workers and enterprises. We explicitly call for regulating new psychosocial risks, as those linked to the digital transition. We commit to speeding up the setting of minimum standards regarding hazardous substances and the evolution towards substituting them. And we also explicitly call for new actions to ensure fair working conditions in key areas for the digital age, such as telework, the right to disconnect, incorporating the ‘human in control’ principle for artificial intelligence in the world of work and regulating algorithmic management.

The declaration calls for a new and ambitious gender equality strategy. It calls for new actions to tackle gender segregation and to close the gender employment, pay, pension and care gaps. It indicates the need for new actions to guarantee more legal certainty, more transparency and more cooperation between member states in the coordination of social security systems to ensure the portability of social security rights within the Union and to make our social protection systems more user-friendly for mobile citizens, workers and employers, as well as to facilitate enforcement and combat illegal practices.

Last but not least, the declaration clearly indicates that the European Pillar of Social Rights is not only about social and labour legislation but should be mainstreamed in all policy domains, including budgetary policies and public procurement. Under the Belgian and Spanish presidencies of the EU, we launched a new agenda on social investment. The declaration underscores the need to continue this work with the aim to fully exploit the potential of skills, labour market and social policies for economic growth. It calls for the use of distributional impact assessment tools to make sure that policies in all domains do not exacerbate poverty or inequality.

Thus, the La Hulpe declaration paves the way for a consistent social action plan for the next 2024-2029 cycle. I am therefore delighted that such an ambitious declaration could be supported by 25 member states and all European institutions. This was not an easy job but here we are! In fact, at the beginning of this process, we simply wanted to have a strong social reference in the European Council Strategic Agenda 2024-2029. But when we started preparing this declaration, we immediately understood that the ambition could be much higher, and so we engaged in this inter-institutional process on substance and today, we can proudly cherish the result.

Obviously, there discussion points remain, as testified by the exchanges during the conference. However, I think it is fair to say that we are all about prosperity, but also inclusion. We are all about sustainability, economic growth and the needed investments, also social investments. We are all about productivity, and human capital. We are all about competitiveness and cohesion. We are about social rights, social dialogue and solidarity. In these days, we hear numerous quotes from Jacques Delors. I recall a memory of a meeting with Delors in the mid-1980s. He was explaining the European project to a small group of people. His message was compelling: the project is about external competitiveness and the internal solidarity you need for that! The one is premised on the other. Solidarity is built on that external competitiveness. However, external competitiveness requires internal solidarity. It would be foolish to think that what was true 40 years ago is not true anymore today. Today, amidst rising geopolitical tensions, I would even go beyond a mere economic argument. To be strong in this dangerous world, we need internal solidarity. This is the essence of the declaration of La Hulpe. It motivated the Belgian Presidency to make this recommitment to the Pillar of Social Rights the heart of its programme.

© Nicolas Lobet PRYZM – Belgian Presidency 2024

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