“Unions need a bigger role in the European Semester”. CESI speaks to Marije Cornelissen MEP

6 Dec 2013

With the elections to European Parliament in just over 5 months (22-25 May 2014), it is important that CESI’s members are well informed about the work of current MEPs. CESI is speaking to MEPs working in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee and beyond over the coming months to keep you updated on relevant topics to our work and to find out in which direction MEPs would like to see the work of the European Parliament going. Last week, CESI spoke to Marije Cornelissen is an MEP for the Greens/European Free Alliance in the Netherlands.

“Unions need a bigger role in the European Semester”. CESI speaks to Marije Cornelissen MEP

Gender equality is an important issue for CESI, having its own commission on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. Last week, the European Parliament voted in favour of improving the gender balance on the boards of companies in Europe. Why is this piece of legislation so important?

Gender equality is one of the basic values of the European Union, enshrined in the original Treaties in 1957, in the Treaty of Rome. Company boards are one of the sectors where there is nowhere near gender equality. Having had a chance for the last thirty years, self-regulation has not worked. It may gradually and slowly get better but people have calculated that this will take around fifty to sixty years. I am not ready to wait that long.

The proposals now move onto the Council, where the Member States, represented by the relevant Ministers will discuss them. Will these proposals be accepted?

It will all depend on Germany, as with many dossiers. After the elections, hope has risen. In the coalition agreements, company boards will be represented by at least 30% women. But this is at the national level. We will have to wait and see if this will also have an effect on Germany’s position on the European Directive – we certainly hope so. If Germany approves the proposals then we need one more country to approve it. In this case, the Council will have a mandate and we can negotiate.

The EU is now in its fourth year of the European Semester. As a shadow rapporteur on the report for employment and social aspects in 2014, what changes do you want to see from previous years?

Since I wrote my report (on the European semester for economic policy coordination: employment and social aspects in the annual growth survey) in 2011, not a lot has changed. The reports since then look more or less the same, making more or less the same demands, as these have not been done and these issues have not been resolved in the meantime. One of the main elements is democracy – more involvement of the Parliament and stakeholders in the Europe Semester.

Putting social aspects on an equal footing with the economic points is equally important. In making recommendations, such as on addressing rising unemployment rates and rising poverty levels, we need to take them as seriously as rising budget deficits. If a country is told that it needs to decrease its budget deficit then it needs to do so in a way that does not increase unemployment. This might take longer or require more investment first. Carrying out deep-seated reforms that will offer not only a balanced budget but also a socially balanced system in the future might need more time with regard to economic policies.

What role do you see for trade unions in the European Semester?

To be quite honest, I am disappointed in the role that unions are not taking in the European Semester. I know that their formal role should be much bigger, but there are ways to take democracy if you are not given it. Unions seem to be divided for one thing, not speaking with one voice. They seem to be very reluctant to even engage in the process of the European Semester because half of them want to outright reject the whole process instead of having a constructive process to what is said within the Semester.

The economic crisis laid bare the economic interdependence of the countries of the Eurozone.
This is why, within the European Semester, the European Commission is addressing wages and pensions, because these are of high macroeconomic and high financial importance. The EU needs to address wages and pensions within a social understanding and unions should support this. By rejecting this, unions are putting themselves outside of the debate, meaning they are disregarded.

Where there is no democracy you can create one by creating a public, by making sure that voters know about the issues. Unions can play a really big role – you have so many people you can reach, give information to and mobilise to say to “Yes, EU Member States have committed to keeping their budgets under 3%, but they have also committed to EU2020 Strategy, to raising employment levels to 75%”. So my advice to you is to spread the word! Create a public!

Is the introduction of a social dimension in Economic and Monetary Union “too little, too late”?

I did not think it would be coming at all so I am fairly happy that it is here now. But it is too late. And you can see from the figures and what is happening on the street what the consequences are. It is absolutely horrible. If unemployment levels keep rising, debt is not going to fall, because debt it is a relative figure. If your GDP falls, and employment falls, your debt will not be solved, even if you keep cutting, cutting, cutting. Finally, this seems to be dawning a little bit.

It is very obvious that the Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, László Andor, needs all the support he can get to move the social dimension forward. I think we need to rally behind him. This has been the biggest step for a long time in the social realm. We must debate what to do with it and how to organise it. Let’s grasp this potentially revolutionary step forward with both hands.

Do you think a social dimension in EMU will engage citizens more in the EU in general?

Citizens have started paying more and more attention as governments have started paying more attention. Governments are getting a little bit afraid of Country Specific Recommendations which is a really good thing. I am very much in favour of the system, of the process of the European Semester – countries together determining what they would like to see for the future, the direction the European economy needs to take. They align what they are going to do. This also needs to include balancing measures. Yes, wages in Germany do need to rise and yes, the insider-outsider labour market in Spain really does need to be reformed.

Does the EU need a minimum wage?

Absolutely, and I do think that there needs to be a pan European social dialogue in which per sector perhaps, unions and employers make a framework within which national wage negotiations happen. If Europe is going to involve itself in macroeconomic policies then wages are going to be a part of that. If social partners do not want to see social dialogue diminished in importance then take your social dialogue to the level at which the steering happens instead of being only resistant and saying, ‘no we only do this negotiating at national level and nothing may stand in the way of that’.

Some of the terminology of the European Semester, the Eurospeak, can be quite complicated to understand. CESI believes it has an important role to play in translating the EU for those people it represents. How important is it that people understand the European Union?

It is vital. I think far more journalists should make an effort to do this. The media always gives the impression that the EU is a political conglomerate with a plot to take power away from the national level, but the power is now not so much with national level. The power is mostly with international business and the international financial system. This power had an almost unnoticed trickled away from national politics; the only way to get this power back for citizens is to operate the political level at more or less the same level as the system does.

I am trying to campaign with information on the social dimension – I tell people my grandmother did her grocery shopping with the grocer around the corner, her banking with the cooperative bank which operated only in her province. These days, I go to a Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn which is a huge global chain, I go to the ING bank which is present in all continents. Things have changed so much, with or without the EU, and this happened without any political steering. Now we need to really run hard and fast to get some control back. I am trying to make this clearer to citizens.

Unions risk being left behind if they do not do join me in this too. You see it already with big companies in France saying to workers that they need to accept certain conditions in collective agreements, because in Spain they have already accepted them. If the French workers do not agree then the company threatens to up and move and put our factory there. So your arms are twisted behind your backs if you do not start operating at European level as well.

The campaign for the 2014 elections has not officially begun yet, but I am sure all MEPs have it in mind at the moment. What will be your key message to Dutch voters?

Europe is a way to gain power as employees and as citizens. That is central to my message. If we want to get out of the social crisis, if we want to get a social say over our labour markets and the way our society is organised back then we need Europe to do so. If you are not content with the way things are organised now, which a lot of people aren’t, that could be a good reason not to vote for them anymore and to try it from the other side.

We also need to make sure that Europe has a very firm basis of social legislation and social values that we do not go below, unlike China or the United States of America. We never want to compete on wages internationally. We are Europe. We have social values. This is one of the basic values of Europe. You notice already that in a couple of countries, right wing governments are trying to lessen the attention paid to labour circumstances, for example, not to bother companies with health and safety regulation in a time of crisis or cutting labour inspections. But there is legislation that they cannot change nationally, and there is never going to be 28 countries that are willing together to do away with this basic protection.

Marije Cornelissen is a Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/European Free Alliance in the Netherlands. She is a member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.