The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has hit the European economy hard, but not equally across all countries and sectors, and the fragmentation could lead to a social crisis, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit warned on Wednesday (20 May).
“In February, I had the pleasure to announce the highest level in employment in Europe and the constant fall in unemployment figures,” Schmit said. “Just a few months after, today, Europe is facing a massive increase in unemployment and there is a risk of fragmentation, not only in our countries but also in our societies.”
The Commissioner warned during the presentation the European Semester Spring Package that certain sectors, companies and citizens are more affected than others and there is therefore “a risk that this crisis will become a social crisis.”
Schmit underlined that combating unemployment “should be our main priority,” and welcomed the Council’s recent decision to adopt SURE, the instrument the Commission tabled to support financially countries being forced to set up temporary unemployment schemes to keep people in work.
“More than 30 million persons are on temporary or partial unemployment,” the Commissioner said, and without such an instrument, most of those citizens would be unemployed, he added, pointing to the situation in the US where millions of people go jobless every week.
Migrants, people with disabilities, members of the Roma community, young people… The Commission underlined that some minority groups face greater difficulties in accessing the labour market as well as social protection in times of crisis.
“Recovery should champion inclusion and economic convergence, which is central to social convergence. We need to create jobs and support workers,” Commissioner Schmit pointed out.
Young people were one of the hardest-hit groups during the financial crisis in 2008, when some countries faced unemployment rates of up to 50%, and this recession is no different. “We cannot accept another generation to be sacrificed,” Schmit warned.
The Commission will present in the coming weeks an updated, “beefed up” European Youth Guarantee, an instrument put forward back in 2013 precisely to help member states support young people during the economic downturn.
Crisis semester package
The recommendations issued by the Commission to the EU countries acknowledge the priorities derived from the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the activation of the escape clause back in March that led to a de facto suspension of the EU’s fiscal rules so that countries could support their economies through the crisis.
The Commission, therefore, encouraged countries to strengthen the economic and social response to the crisis, “with specific emphasis on health-related aspects” in the short term, as “the EU economy will experience a recession of historic proportions this year.”
In the medium-term, the goal is “to put the economies back on track” while working towards the green transition and the digital transformation.
For that, Schmit pointed out the need for re-skilling and up-skilling workers. “We have to make sure that young people and also those who might lose their jobs get the skills to work in these new sectors,” he said, adding this too will be part of the recovery plan.
The social protection gap
Schmit said that the coronavirus outbreak has shown the importance of robust social protection systems but has also exacerbated the consequences of the exclusion of some groups such as self-employed, who have been heavily affected by the crisis.
The Commissioner warned that the crisis has exposed the weaknesses of the health care systems in some countries and the precarious conditions health workers face. Investment in our health systems is more necessary than ever, he said, so that they are accessible enough and better prepared to handle emergencies.