Labour mobility, parental leave & social dialogue: CESI speaks to MEP Thomas Händel

Between the European elections and summer this year, MEP Thomas Händel (GUE/NGL) was absent from Brussels politics due to illness. Recently, CESI met with Mr Händel, Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, in order to talk with him about the state of play of employment policy and social dialogue in Europe. This interview continues the ‘CESI speaks to …’-series on insights into EU employment and social affairs hot topics.

Labour mobility, parental leave & social dialogue: CESI speaks to MEP Thomas Händel

As German member of the GUE/NGL group, Thomas Händel has been an MEP since 2009. After the 2014 European elections, he was elected chair of the European Parliament Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL). However, due to illness, Mr Händel could not take on his new position. During the summer months, he returned fully recovered to Brussels politics and has since then been chairing the sessions of the EMPL Committee again.

Mr Händel, more than one year after the European elections, how do you judge the European Commission’s employment and social policy?

One the one hand, Commission President Juncker recently announced plans to, for example, ensure an effective application of the principle of equal pay for equal work at the same place and to review and strengthen the posting of workers directive. This activism of the Commission is a positive new development that points in the right direction.

On the other hand, I often have the impression that the Commission still follows a thinking according to which one just needs a thriving economy in order to bring new jobs. However, experience has shown that this is not sufficient. Employment and social policy needs to a more central and high-ranking place on the EU’s political agenda. Compared to the Barroso Commission, I feel that the Juncker Commission listens more but gives less answers. This term, it has not yet tabled much in terms of hard legislative proposals. Instead, I see signs that it prefers to rely more on the open method of coordination. I believe that this is the wrong way for Europe because it bypasses the co-decision powers of the representation of the European people, the European Parliament.

For December, the Commission announced a package of proposals on fair labour mobility. What do you expect to be in it?

If the EU wants to create a more integrated labour market in which workers are more willing to voluntarily move to another EU country to work, it will be essential to minimize employment and social rights-related risks for workers. At the moment, there are six major groups of workers, each with different legal rights: core workforce staff members, agency workers, posted workers, part-time workers, temporary workers and seasonal workers. Moreover, different types of so-called ‘new forms of employment’ have started to emerge. In this context, it is vital to create a common and overarching definition of the term ‘employee’ at the EU-level. Only this can create a clear reference point on which to base minimum common employment conditions and social rights for all workers across the EU. A proposal related to this would be central to the Commission’s announced labour mobility package. Only if people have more certainty about their rights and working conditions will they see less risks in moving abroad for work.

During the summer, the European Commission withdrew its maternity leave directive proposal and announced a new initiative on work-life balance soon after. What is your view on this?

The Commission’s roadmap, which discusses different broader options for initiative to succeed its withdrawn maternity leave directive proposal, is rather vague. Unfortunately, after reading the roadmap, it seems to be as tough in the future the Commission intends to rely a lot on non-legislative measures and voluntary cooperation between the member states and not on ‘hard’ and binding legislation in the form of directives. Regrettably, this would exclude the European Parliament from action as its involvement in policy-making through the ordinary legislative (ex co-decision) procedure is in this way bypassed.

CESI represents numerous trade unions from the public sector. Many of their members have faced extensive restructuring and staff and budget costs. At the same time, many of them are also more than ever working beyond their capacities. This is not least because of the necessity to appropriately accommodate the needs of migrants, who continue to arrive at the EU’s borders in large numbers. What do you think about this situation that the public services and public sector workers are facing?

In the past, the governments of many member states have continuously cut taxes, arguing that the state must work with fewer resources and that many public services can actually also be provided by private companies. This is a dangerous neoliberal theorem because ‘less state’ has in the past shown to go above all at the expense of the public sector workers and the quality of the services which they provide and which are the backbone of our societies. Unfortunately, this neoliberal thinking is still strongly present also within the European Commission, which, through tools such as the European Semester, continues to encourage member states to go on with their politics of austerity.

In many member states, social dialogue has suffered substantially in the context of the last economic and financial crisis. The Juncker Commission responded to this development when it came up with a new initiative on ‘A new start for social dialogue’ in Europe. What is your view on the condition of social dialogue in the member states and at EU-level?

We clearly need a deepening of social dialogue in Europe, but for this we first need to restore social dialogue to its pre-crisis level. This is the interim objective. Importantly, social dialogue already began to suffer under the Barroso Commission, which for instance refused to push forward the conversion of the 2012 haircutters’ social partner agreement into a corresponding EU directive. The European Parliament’s EMPL Committee is, across the party spectrum, in favour of a strong social dialogue and has already put pressure on the Commission. Sometimes, however, we feel that the social partners themselves could help us insist even more strongly on social partner autonomy.

In Germany, a special tariff unity law (Tarifeinheitsgesetz) recently restricted the power of smaller trade unions vis-à-vis bigger ones considerably, ruling that within a firm there may only be one collective agreement (Tarifvertrag) for each group of employees – negotiated by the trade union bringing together the largest share of employees of that group. Members of CESI are also affected and see their right to collective bargaining compromised. What is your view on the new German law?

The law is a clear infringement of social partner autonomy. It is not acceptable that the state uses a law to get involved in affairs that social partners need to solve among themselves. I say this despite me being a member of the IG Metall, the largest German (and ETUC-affiliated) trade union, which generally benefits from the new law.

The challenges that the EU has recently been confronted with are numerous: Meeting increasing migration pressures, addressing continued troubles in Ukraine and Syria, making the EU more democratic, preventing a so-called Grexit and Brexit, bringing down unacceptably  high poverty and unemployment figures … What does the EU need to do in order to overcome the challenges it faces and make the European integration project again a success story which is also perceived as such in the public?

Clearly, not everything that is done in Brussels is bad, but in order to depict themselves in a more positive light many national governments tend to wrongfully blame the EU for unpopular decisions they have to take at home. If this continues, the European integration idea is doomed to fail over time. The current action of some EU member states with regards to migration is exemplary for a wrong blaming of the EU: The governments of some member states unilaterally closed their borders and refused to cooperate with other countries – but in public, the EU is blamed for not managing migration properly.

What is true, though, is that a strengthening of subsidiarity with regards to certain topics should be envisaged and that certain procedures should be made more democratic. Nevertheless, big questions related to the politics of migration, economic governance, financial regulation, energy, climate protection and also employment can only be regulated at the EU level – at least through minimum standards that everyone needs to respect.

CESI thanks Mr Händel for the interview. For previous editions of the ‘CESI speaks to …’-series, please consult CESI’s website press section