EU summit pushes social issues, but divisions linger

·4-min read
Known as the "social summit", the EU meeting on Friday with conferences bringing together representatives of civil society and trade unionists

EU leaders on Friday will try to find unity on ways to fight poverty and promote equality in Europe after the pandemic, but the 27 member states remain deeply divided.

Twenty-four of the EU's 27 leaders will make the trip to the riverside city of Porto for a summit that will make social issues a priority.

Excusing themselves because of the pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will attend only by videoconference, as will Malta's premier.

Known as the "social summit", the meeting will start on Friday with conferences bringing together representatives of civil society and trade unionists, with French President Emmanuel Macron expected to make an appearance.

The host, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, said the Covid-19 pandemic "has highlighted the cost of precarious working conditions and gender inequalities, but also the need to regulate new forms of work, such as telework and digital platforms."

This will be followed by a broader EU summit, where leaders will first meet to discuss over dinner the latest developments in fighting the pandemic, including the US proposal to lift patents on anti-Covid vaccines to help developing countries.

The discussion on social affairs will take place on Saturday, ahead of a video summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and with Merkel, Rutte and Malta's premier Robert Abela participating by video link.

At heart of the economic discussion will be a non-binding proposal by the EU executive to get countries to target an employment rate to 78 percent by 2030, train at least 60 percent of adults each year and reduce the number of people at risk of poverty by 15 million.

Some controversy emerged from Hungary and Poland, which have pushed to strip the final statement of any specific reference to gender and equality of the sexes, diplomats said.

- 'Lacks ambition' -

Leftist parties have organised a counter-summit and plan to demonstrate on Saturday in the streets of Porto, with frustration that the meeting amounts to little more than a talk shop.

The EU's social action plan "clearly lacks ambition", said Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on human rights.

He said that 700,000 people in Europe sleep rough every night and more than 20 million workers are living in poverty due to the increase in precarious work contracts used by digital platforms for food delivery and taxis.

With the rise in poverty over the past year, particularly among young people and the most exposed workers, the pandemic has nevertheless "revealed the importance of social issues" in the EU, European Employment Commissioner Nicolas Schmit told AFP.

The EU's 27 member states are deeply divided on social issues. The countries of the south -- such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal -- are determined to push for the protection of the economically vulnerable.

Rich northern countries, attached to their successful national models, and the eastern countries, which fear losing their competitiveness, reject going further down this route.

- 'Best vaccine' -

But a lot has changed in Europe since the eurozone debt crisis, when Germany and allies imposed cost-cutting reforms on Greece and Portugal in return for bailout loans.

Last year, the EU member states agreed a massive 750-billion-euro recovery plan that instead of loans relies mainly on direct payouts and will be financed by joint borrowing amongst all member states.

Schmit said "we have seen the consequences" of too much austerity.

"Rising populism, poverty, unemployment. We realised that the recipes were perhaps not adapted. I think the lesson has been learned," he said.

The Portuguese socialist Costa and like-minded leaders would like Europe to go further and create EU-wide social policies such as a minimum wage.

This wish list, put together in something called the "social pillar", was originally drafted in 2017 at a similar summit in Sweden, a year after the populist-fuelled Brexit referendum spooked the EU.

Putting those policies into practice "is the best vaccine against inequality, fear and populism," Costa said ahead of the summit.

During the call with Prime Minister Modi, EU officials said leaders will agree to restart long-stalled trade talks with India, with the Europe wanting to send a message to China.

It remains to be seen if New Delhi will ease up on its traditionally protectionist approach.

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