November 16, 2014
Last week, I was asked to discuss the potential lessons for the European Union from the Nordic Models at the Nordic Labour Movement congress SAMAK. For me, three points seem essential:
First: Freedom and prosperity needs to be created through opportunities and challenges!
Democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law remain guiding principles of the European Union. The mission has remained to promote them beyond the borders. This is why the subsequent enlargements have been so important, marking historical turning points from which onwards people in different states hope to lead lives enjoying freedom, dignity and prosperity. But what once has been a common desire now is rather taken for granted. Democracy seems to appear rather as a static arrangement that is there because it is agreed upon in treaties. It is not seen as an ideal that requires all to assume responsibility for its constant development. Therefore the populists have a space to promote a discourse of fear, they build upon disenchantment and despair. They grow stronger day-by-day, trashing democratic politics and actors involved. And they will, unless challenged properly, increase in numbers.
This is the most important lesson the European Union has to learn from the Nordics: More freedom is needed and it is not given. Everyone has to accept their duties but can demand their rights are respected. Respect and freedom are the basis for a fertile ground for progress and unity.
Second: Only equality of labour standards ensures long-term progress and social welfare!
The historical objective of the European integration process was to establish mechanisms of inter-state cooperation that would protect people from conflicts, poverty and hunger. While the traditions that underpin different post-war welfare systems may differ, the overall principles of equality and social justice have been common and hence allowed to speak in terms of an ideal of a European Social Model.
The vision of a Social Europe is to ensure that the common effort for the Union translates into an improvement of living and working conditions. It has always taken a lot of persistence to negotiate compromises, especially when the strategies for social transformation take a long time to show results. So when they finally reach that stage, the benefits of them are often already taken for granted.
This is also one of the reasons, why some of the welfare arrangements have evolved to be old-fashioned, not really sticking to our changing society. However, while the crisis hit, conservatives have made no differentiation and social provisions in general have become the first target of austerity.
The social objectives must translate into both labour and social policies. However austerity policies in many Eurozone countries have significantly impaired the possibility to put forward a new framework on progressive labour and social policies. The recent years have seen detachment of the debate on these even within the progressive movement.
Furthermore, European added value must not be mistaken for competing on the national level at any cost. An essential is the European labour standards. There is no trade off between efficiency and equality.
Progressives must reopen the debate and embark on the struggle for quality employment for all. This is especially essential now, when they are working for proposals for a re-industrialisation strategy. Here we encounter one of the main lessons from the Nordics for the European Union to consider. The European Union has to continue to fight for equal labour standards and better income in all European member states. The Nordics have been strong in ensuring common standards based on respect but also based on strong and effective democratic institutions.
Third: Globalisation gives us the duty to re-define economic thinking!
Globalisation and its new challenges demand a redefinition of fiscal, monetary and global economic policy. Here both the Nordics and the European Union need to learn.
Fiscal and monetary policy should be seen as having the fundamental function of ensuring high-levels of aggregate demand. In addition and to fight against inequalities there is an essential need for a common European labour policy and a shift away from the current system of wage repression amongst the member states and amongst the different economic zones elsewhere.
A common international labour policy and a progressive harmonisation of labour rights and social protection could lead to a reasonably egalitarian income distribution and to an end to the current dysfunctional framework.
Modern global capitalism cannot remain an uncontrolled “wild” engine. Achieving significant increases in employment, growth and reducing inequality in Europe will not be easy, but it is certainly achievable. It will imply the implementation of a range of progressive economic policies at both the country levels and the EU level. These imply that the European Union will have to become more coordinated and more progress could only be achieved through international cooperation.
In this regard, a strong and active Union with an agenda of regulated international trade based on decent work for all is to be advanced. New protectionism and fear are not the answers. But this demands a creation of a strong moral and political legitimacy for economic and labour market policy as well as for new trade arrangements such as TTIP. It should become a model for such a new approach in international treaties and an answer to modern globalisation and capitalism.
When the Nordics are looking for a more human approach in the globalised world this should be done together with other Europeans and not separately. The Nordics are part of Europe and our continent will only remain strong when united. The challenges of our century are immense. Climate change, rising inequalities, technological advances, rising of new global powers, only to name the most challenging one.
European integration remains the only solid and serious alternative to tackle this. The nineteenth century created the labour movements as an answer to industrialisation. The twentieth century created the European Union as an answer to war and self-destruction in Europe. We should now create an answer to a human globalisation. All the lessons learnt need to be incorporated in order to ensure a better and a more prosperous Europe.