EU ponders stronger social protection as populist wave rises

A man carries a EU flag, after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Downing Street in London

By Jan Strupczewski

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission proposed on Wednesday to strengthen social protection across the bloc as the European Union struggles with a wave of populism triggered by globalization and a migration crisis.

Its most concrete proposals focused on creating a better work-life balance with new EU-wide standards for more generous parental and paternity leave rules, guaranteed carers’ leave to tend to ailing family members and flexible working arrangements.

The proposals came less than two weeks before the second round of presidential elections in socially-minded France, whose vote is seen as decisive for the future of the EU after Britain decided to leave the 28-nation bloc last year.

Marianne Thyssen, the commissioner for employment and social affairs, said she was pleased the proposals were made now.

“I hope that this is taken up in the campaigns because it shows that social is at the heart of the European policy,” she told a news conference.

“We realize that many people are afraid of being the losers of the changes we see due to digitalization and globalization.”

Debate on these ideas will also take place during the campaign for the Sept. 24 parliamentary election in Germany, the EU’s largest member and strongest economy. The Commission hopes its proposals will be endorsed by EU leaders by December.

Anti-EU movements have taken root across the bloc as groups of voters feel left out by Brussels. Even if they do not win a majority, as the Brexit camp did in Britain last year, their resentment has become a political factor to be reckoned with.


Among its concrete proposals, the Commission wants fathers in all EU countries to be able to take 10 days of leave when their child is born, paid at the level of sick benefits.

While various countries have their own laws on this, there are no such pan-EU standards at the moment.

All EU workers would also have the right to five days of carers’ leave per year to take care of seriously ill or dependent relatives, paid as sick leave.

Again, no such minimum standards exist in the whole EU now.

Finally, in an extension of existing laws, all working parents of children up to 12 and carers with dependent relatives would have the right to request reduced or flexible working hours, and possibly choose where they work.

BusinessEurope, an employers organization, said extending parental leave rights beyond existing laws was too expensive, especially at a time when the Commission was also urging member states to ensure their public finances were sustainable.

“Many Member States simply cannot afford to grant sickness pay levels to people taking parental leave,” BusinessEurope President Emma Marcegaglia said.

The Commission also proposed a review of workers’ contracts with employers’ organizations and trade unions “to ensure that people in all forms of employment have adequate access to social protection and employment services.”

The EU executive invited the views of EU governments and institutions on developing future social policies.

Once Britain leaves the EU in 2019, the 27 remaining members could decide to jointly develop their social policies and maybe fully harmonize citizens’ rights across the EU.

If that proves too much for some members, different groups of countries could opt to do more together on social policies, just like some members share the euro currency.

(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Tom Heneghan)