Text relating to the speech delivered by Minister Giuliano Poletti at the Opening Session of the High-Level Conference on the European Social Charter (Turin, 17-18 October 2014)

(Translation from the original Italian)





Mr Mayor, Mr Secretary General, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,


We are gathered here today at a symbolic place and time, since it was in this very city that the signature of the European Social Charter took place exactly 53 years ago. I therefore thank the Council of Europe for its determination to hold this conference and Turin, a city which - with its tradition of openness and welcoming -fully reflects the values promoted by the Charter, for hosting it. For my part I wish to say that it is a great honour and an opportunity for Italy to organise this conference during the six months of its EU presidency, since it enables us to reinforce existing synergies between the European Union and the Council of Europe and to underline these institutions' common objectives.


I.This conference is being held at a particularly difficult time for Europe, whose economic and employment prospects are a cause for concern, as can be seen from the most recent data. The crisis has had negative repercussions on the enjoyment of social and family rights, as well as on levels of labour market participation, particularly among young people. This costs a great deal in economic, social and employment terms and brings with it a risk of further marginalisation of the most disadvantaged sectors of society.


Labour market reforms, particularly supply-side reforms through efficient active policies, appear necessary, but will not in themselves suffice to reduce unemployment to acceptable levels. It is therefore also necessary to act on the aggregate demand side. A return to higher employment levels, essential for social cohesion and good living conditions of the population at large, requires a combination of monetary, fiscal, structural and social measures.


Recently, in response to the causes of the crisis, the European Union reinforced its rules on macroeconomic and budgetary surveillance, introduced a financial stability mechanism in the Eurozone and adopted a Banking Union. Similarly, there is now also a need to respond to the consequences of the crisis, first and foremost unemployment and social disadvantage, through appropriate co-ordination  of our fiscal and financial policies with policies for inclusive, sustainable growth and social policies.


Budgetary constraints, slack growth and erosion of economic potential call for a common vision which should promote quality investments, whether public or private, while making optimum use of public budgets and implementing appropriate control of risk management measures.


II.Italy itself is strongly occupied with the implementation of a wide-ranging, ambitious general reform programme, which our country has needed for many years and which, as can be seen from the results of the recent European elections, has captured the attention of voters, among whom it commands a consensus.


Labour market reforms are therefore being pursued as part of a broader reform agenda, especially since the rapid adoption of this reform package constituted the Renzi government's raison d'être. Beginning with the reform of the country's institutional foundations, by doing away with "paritary" bicameralism, which slows down the legislative process to such a great extent; moving on to the reform of electoral law, to ensure governability; and then the revision of the distribution of powers and responsibilities between central government and the regions, with the abolition of the provinces.


Then there are the tax system reforms, aiming to reduce the tax burden on employment income, beginning with the lowest earners, and on businesses. The institutional reforms must go hand in hand with a reform of public administration, since they require a streamlined, more efficient administrative approach that is more open to dialogue and to a public service ethos. The civil justice system is also being reformed, because its malfunctioning discourages both national and international investments in Italy.


There is a strong awareness that these reforms are essential to restore our country's competitiveness, reinforce social cohesion and mobility and enhance citizens' faith in public institutions and politics.


III.The Council of Europe has an important role to play in the above context, because the economic crisis that has shaken the member States has revealed the national systems' weakness in safeguarding the rights the organisation has stood for since its very foundation, at a time when the European Union as we know it today, that is to say a bearer of not solely economic values, did not yet exist. It is not by chance that no country has joined the European Union without first acceding to the Council of Europe, whose task of upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law has never become outdated. The proof of this lies in the 200 treaties conventions, charters and agreements concluded so far, first and foremost of which the European Convention on Human Rights, of which the Social Charter that we are celebrating today is a corollary, translating the Convention into the everyday lives of millions of European citizens.


The rights to housing, health, education, work and freedom of movement directly concern individuals and families, young people and the elderly, children and people with disabilities. Protection of these rights constitutes the essence of the European concept of the social welfare state, which in recent years has been under considerable strain. In the past it may have seemed all but inevitable that the rights recognised in the Charter should make gradual progress thanks to our countries' economic and social performances, but the crisis has called this progression into question. The constant obligation to comply with the Charter, and to apply its provisions, has in any case forced the member States to consider the state of implementation of their own welfare systems, to confront the analyses inherent in the policy choices made necessary by the conjuncture, and to not lose sight of fundamental rights.


The Charter has led to a completely original mechanism for monitoring its implementation by the member States, based on periodical reporting and on the work done by the independent experts of the European Committee of Social Rights, whose assessments result in binding adaptation requirements for the member States, often necessitating legislative and administrative measures that are fairly broad in scope. Tangible examples in our country are the adoption of a National Strategy for the Roma or of the National Disability Plan, transposing the debate on these themes that has developed within the Charter's supervisory system.


An even more direct form of supervision is available to all citizens of States that have acceded to the additional protocol providing for a system of collective complaints. This protocol permits NGOs and employer and employee organisations to lodge genuine complaints with the Committee concerning alleged breaches of the Charter. Over the years an ever-growing impact on the national legislation of the countries having ratified the protocol has been noted. Its more widespread acceptance therefore could but bring the Charter even closer to its direct beneficiaries, the citizens.


The development of the European Union has led to greater contiguity in the two organisations' fields of action. Over time the references to the Social Charter contained in Community law, including primary law, have become more frequent, testifying to a common desire to place respect for human rights at the heart of the action of the member States and of the organisations to which they belong. The core treaties of the European Union contain specific references to the Social Charter, especially with regard to the promotion of employment, the improvement of working conditions, enhanced social protection, the safeguarding of industrial relations and the development of human resources. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights replicates many of the provisions of the Charter, albeit not entirely.


There is, however, no shortage of instances where the legal systems of the EU and the Council of Europe overlap, to the point where a number of decisions taken by the European Committee of Social Rights have resulted in certain legislative amendments at national level that have been considered to violate Community law, and have therefore led the EU Court of Justice to find against the States concerned. There have also been cases in which States were sanctioned by the Committee in respect of legal standards adopted in accordance with Community law, which is not regarded as a sufficient ground for failing to comply with the Charter.


A face-to-face discussion between the two organisations is therefore welcome, in pursuit of the common objective of ensuring the full application of rights which, albeit social or economic in nature, are above all human rights and regarded as fundamental by both organisations, although their approaches differ. I am certain that our proceedings today will make a significant contribution to addressing and resolving the current impasse, with beneficial consequences not only for the administrations of the member States and of the organisations concerned, but first and foremost for the citizens who constitute the ultimate target of their policies.


Thank you for your attention. I wish you all a very successful conference.