High-Level Conference on the European Social Charter
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It is a great pleasure and an honour to open this High-Level Conference on the European Social Charter.
Let me express my deep gratitude to Minister Poletti, Mayor Fassino and the Italian authorities for making this event possible.
This Conference is a very timely one.
Europe is facing an unprecedented crisis with heavy economic and social consequences.
Unemployment is on the rise. According to a recent OECD report, there are 45 million unemployed people in the OECD countries, which is 12 million more than before the financial crisis.
Young people are among the worst affected.
Poverty and inequality are on the rise in all European countries.
More people are poor, and those who are already poor are becoming even poorer.
The gap between the extremes in income and wealth is increasing at an alarming pace.
At the same time, some austerity measures, designed to stimulate recovery, may weaken the protection of social rights, which, in turn, may affect social cohesion and threaten the European social model based on solidarity.
Public expenditure cuts, reduced labour protection and pension reforms are having a negative impact, especially on vulnerable groups such as children, the unemployed, the elderly and the disabled.
In 2012, the European Committee of Social Rights, the supervisory body of the European Social Charter, found in two cases concerning Greece that some austerity measures were contrary to the Charter.
One case related to dramatic cuts in pension benefits, set to significantly deteriorate the living conditions of the pensioners; the other case concerned the minimum salary for workers under the age of 25 – meaning that these young people fell below the poverty line.
This situation is not inevitable.
Government leaders should start considering social and economic rights as an integral part of recovery plans.
In this context, I believe it is high time to give a new impulse to the European Social Charter, here in Turin, more than 50 years after its signature in October 1961.
Together with the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter embodies the best of the European democratic and social model.
It contains the minimum essential levels of rights necessary for ensuring human dignity: the right to quality education, to health care, to housing, to a fair remuneration, to social security, to social assistance.
The Charter is a safety net that governments should have in mind when modernizing or reforming their labour legislation or their pension systems.
We have a duty to re-launch the Charter as a pillar of the Council of Europe convention system alongside the European Convention on Human Rights.
Doing so will help re-affirm the indivisibility, the interdependence and complementarity of human rights.
It will help to strengthen democratic security in Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In my report on the State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law, as well as in my agenda for my second term of office, I have outlined some crucial imperatives as regards the European Social Charter.
First, all member States should ratify the Revised Charter and accept the collective complaints procedure.
By accepting the complaints procedure, states help to ensure that our social partners and civil society play a bigger role in enforcing social rights and strengthening democratic accountability.
This procedure has produced results.
It has facilitated access to education for children and young adults with disabilities.
It has contributed to a reduction in child labour.
It has strengthened the right of elderly persons to social protection.
With more ratifications, this procedure could be used to achieve even more.
Second, follow-up must be given to the decisions and conclusions of the European Committee of Social Rights by State Parties.
Fundamental social rights cannot exist on paper alone.
They must exist in practice, in the everyday lives of citizens.
Member states enjoy a good degree of freedom in the follow-up to be given.
The measures taken, however, must be in compliance with the Charter.
Third, we need strong synergies between the Charter and European Union law to avoid any legal conflict.
Let me recall a case against Sweden. The European Committee of Social Rights considered recently that restricting the right of trade unions to take action to regulate employment conditions of posted workers, based on a 1996 European Union directive, was contrary to the Charter.
Since then, the European Council took an important step forward and adopted an Enforcement Directive on Posting of Workers last May. This new Directive is meant to safeguard respect for posted workers’ rights in practice.
It is in this context that I wish to explore the possibilities of accession by the European Union to the Charter as is presently foreseen in respect of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Finally, co-operation activities around the Charter need to be enhanced, including through national action plans and targeted training activities.
Now, more than ever, the European Social Charter is a benchmark.
It is a measuring stick of our attachment to social rights.
Together, we must make it relevant to the lives and aspirations of citizens across Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me conclude by saying that this conference is a very important milestone, but it is merely the beginning of a long process, a process that could appropriately be called the “Turin Process”.
The success of this conference will be defined by the quality of its follow-up.
There is still a long way to go before social rights achieve the same recognition as civil and political rights.
And yet civil and political rights can never be enjoyed fully as long as social rights are withheld.
It is therefore high time that states redouble their efforts to protect and implement the rights set out in the Charter.
Protection and implementation of social rights is not only a policy choice.
It is a moral obligation.