Social Europe: what Parliament is doing on social policy



From childhood to retirement, social policies are important at all stages of our lives. Find out what EU rules Parliament is working on.


A wide range of challenges

Compared to the rest of the world, Europe has the best levels of social protection and also ranks highly in terms of quality of life and wellbeing. However, it faces a wide range of challenges. The effects of the economic crisis are still deeply felt in many member states and, even though things have improved in many countries, great disparities remain within the EU. Unemployment rates are decreasing overall, but vary strongly among EU countries. Low birth rates and an aging population also challenge the sustainability of welfare systems.

Working life is being transformed by technological innovation, globalisation and the rise of the services sector. New business models in the sharing economy with more flexible forms of working are becoming more important.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also had a major impact on social policies, leading the EU to take a series of measures to deal with the fallout from this unprecedented crisis.


Competence in social policies: EU vs national governments

The EU has only limited competence when it comes to social issues as most of it is up to national governments.

The responsibility for employment and social policies lies mostly with the member states and their governments. This means that national governments - and not the EU - decide on issues such as wage regulations, including minimum wage, the role of collective bargaining, pensions systems and retirement age, and unemployment benefits.

However, over the years, the EU has been working on social issues throughout the European integration process and come up with a series of instruments in the social sector. These include EU laws, funds and tools to better coordinate and monitor national policies. The EU also encourages countries to share best practices on issues such as social inclusion, poverty and pensions.

The Treaty of Rome in 1957 already included fundamental principles such as equal pay for women and men as well as the right of workers to move freely within the EU. To make this mobility possible, further provisions were adopted, such as rules for the mutual recognition of diplomas, guarantees regarding medical treatment when abroad and safeguards regarding already acquired pension rights.

In addition, there are EU rules on working conditions, such as working time or part-time work, as well as legislation to tackle workplace discrimination and to ensure workers’ health and safety.

The EU complements and supports EU countries in their efforts to organise healthcare and improve the health of Europeans through funding and legislation on a wide range of topics, such as health products and services, safe food, tackling diseases, clean air or healthy workplaces.

In November 2017, the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights to deliver new and more effective rights for people and support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems. The pillar is based on 20 principles and comprises a number of initiatives linked to equal opportunities and access to the labour market; fair working conditions; and adequate and sustainable social protection.

Since the early stages of European integration, the European Parliament has often called for the EU to be more active on social issues and has supported the Commission proposals in this area.


Social rights for Europeans working abroad

EU rules on social security coordination ensure that people do not lose their social security protection when moving to another EU country.

In 2019 MEPs approved plans to establish a European Labour Authority to ensure the fair and simple application of EU rules on labour mobility and social security coordination.

In 2018, Parliament approved new legislation on the posting of workers to ensure equal pay for equal work in the same place.


Source: European Parliament Newsroom