The Porto Social Counter-Summit: Towards Truly Social European Union

On 7/8 May, while the Heads of State and Government of all EU Member States attended the Social Summit, Left Bloc (Portugal) held a counter-summit that brought together politicians, trade unionists, activists and representatives of civil society organisations to discuss the social agenda that is needed to respond to the economic crisis.

With the outbreak of the pandemic and the worsening of the economic crisis the European Commission put forward an “Action Plan” aiming at implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) – with a four year delay. The EPSR has already been proclaimed in the framework of the 2017 “Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth” in Gothenburg (Sweden). The document organises twenty principles in three chapters, specifically equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protection and inclusion. Legally of non-bonding nature, the EPSR was subjected to many criticism, particularly for its lack of ambition. In addition, it subordinates social rights to the primacy of fiscal sustainability and international competitiveness, and uses social policies as a mean to achieve economic growth rather than using economic policies to achieve social rights.

The Action Plan was ratified by the Heads of State and Government in the framework of the Porto Social Summit – the climax of the Portuguese Presidency of the European Council. According to the plan, the three main targets to be achieved by 2030 were, again solemnly, proclaimed: at least 78% of the population aged between 20 and 64 should be in employment, the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion should be reduced by at least 15 million (from 93 million to 76 million people living below the poverty line in the EU) and at least 60% of the adult population should participate in training activities every year.

It was in this context that Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) organised the Social Counter-Summit under the motto “Eradicate Poverty, Fight Precariousness, Ensure Full Employment”, which gathered, both physically and digitally, political leaders, trade unionists, social activists and citizens. The Counter-Summit focused on the struggle against inequalities, the discussion of alternatives guaranteeing social protection for all, labour rights, investment in public health, housing and care policies, and exit strategies from the crisis that effectively puts the EU on the path to a truely social, ecological and feminist transition.

Leader of the Left Bloc Luís Fazenda opened the first session, making harsh criticism of the Summit for not having neither the policies nor the measures needed to address the current social situation. Fazenda also highlighted the non-binding character of the European Social Pillar under the current European Treaties, which he described as obsolete and negative for the democratic functioning of the EU, calling for its repeal and replacement with binding rules for social progress. Heinz Bierbaum, President of the Party of the European Left (EL), highlighted the importance of the Counter-Summit in making visible a left perspective on what a social Europe should be. He referred to the “Protect Our Future” plan put forward by the EL that includes the creation of a European Health Fund, repeal of the Growth and Stability Pact and a raise in public investment and a new model of economic development  that harbours effective social protection, broadening of workers’ rights and ecological transformation. Bierbaum criticised the EU Social Summit for its lack of ambition, for failing to meet the people’s needs and for its Action Plan – merely a declaration without binding measures. Manon Aubry, Co-Chair of the Left in the European Parliament (formerly GUE/NGL) sent a video message, welcoming the organisation of the Counter Summit, stressing the deepening of inequalities during the pandemic times and calling for a European adequate minimum wage.

Three other panels completed the Counter-Summit’s programme. In the first one, devoted to digital labour, platform work and the struggles against precariousness, the challenges, threats and workers’ organisation and resistance in the face of new forms of work were discussed, from the Portuguese, Spanish and French perspectives, but also from an EU standpoint. Economic justice, full employment and labour rights for precarious workers were the issues discussed in the next panel. The permanent contradictions of the EU policies regarding labour were highlighted, the idea of precariousness as a new way of life, expanding beyond labour, was discussed and the absolute need for mobilisation within the institutions as well as on the streets was reinforced. The last panel of the Counter-Summit was dedicated to the struggle for equality, social protection and poverty eradication; the need for articulated policies and the urgency of structural reforms that respond to structural problems were the main topics of the last panel discussion of the Social Counter-Summit of Porto.

Staging and pageantry aside, the Porto Social Summit was indelibly marked by Biden’s unexpected and historic announcement that the US would support the waiver on Covid-19 vaccine patents within the World Trade Organization (WTO) – a proposal put forward by India and South Africa already in October 2020, now supported by more than 80 countries but opposed by the EU, the UK and Switzerland. With the EU Member States initially taking different positions (Spain, France and Italy were initially in favour of the waiver, Germany was strongly against it), this discussion ended up dominating the Social Summit’s agenda.

The EU was hostage to its neoliberal dogmas according to which patents and intellectual property rights would be sources of scientific and technological innovation –in a situation of a blatant worldwide scarcity of vaccines (very dramatically in the Global South). The EU’s position at the precise moment it was supposed to create a new momentum became embarrassing.
If not anything else, one can’t help but wonder: what changes can there be in a social EU without (international) solidarity?

See also:
Party of the European Left, Conference on the Future of Europe – Considerations from the Left Perspective