“The Brussels Diary With Yana Toom”: What Harm Can European Social Policy Do To Estonia?


In a week, on 7 May, the EU summit will begin in the Portuguese city of Porto, and it will be not a simple summit, rather a social one. Europe’s leaders must decide how to bring to reality the European pillar of social rights, which was adopted with great fanfare, by the way, when Estonia held the EU presidency.

The summit will discuss what is occupying everyone’s mind during this pandemic: employment, equal opportunities, social protection and health care. Less briefly, for the time being, we have the goals set by the European Commission by 2030:

  • 78% of the population aged from 20 to 64 must have a job; this share is now 72%.
  • 15 million Europeans must drop out of the poverty risk group; this group currently accounts for one hundred million, if not more.

There is also the problem of housing. In the EU, one in three pays too much for housing, one in four lives in cramped quarters, one in five lives in dampness and one in ten suffers from housing shortage. We have 700,000 homeless people, and almost 30% of young people are forced to live with their parents. Or let us take salaries and wages: 10% of EU employees live in poverty.

To sum up, the summit is in for a treat. The European Parliament also had its say by adopting the A Strong Social Europe for Just Transitions report, which is our vision of what the problems are, and how to solve them. I worked on this document as a shadow reporter.

But there is also bad news. Nobody has decided anything yet, but 11 EU countries have already said that they will not allow a common social policy. On 22 April, they issued a statement in which they say that the EU’s goals are good and noble, the Pillar of Social Rights is wonderful and all, but only if Brussels will guide and complement the reforms of the member states. No more than that. Employment, education and pensions are the “responsibility of individual countries” that do not intend to share it with anyone else. That is: thanks for the money but hands off the principle of subsidiarity and our sovereignty.

Characteristically, neither France, Germany nor the poor countries of the South are among the signatories. Instead, they are the Baltic countries in full, and the Scandinavians, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland, Malta and Bulgaria. It is understandable that it contains the Scandinavians and the other affluents. The presence of the have-nots like Estonia and Bulgaria on the list is more difficult to understand.

What harm can European social policy do to a poor country? What is so terrible about the minimum wage at 60% of the median, and 50% of the average? What is the nightmare behind European homelessness protection?

Who would explain that to me?

Yes, we cannot but agree that the starting conditions in the EU countries are different. But this is why common standards are good, as this difference is gradually disappearing. In any case, it would be a good thing to first understand what the European Commission is proposing, and only then fight back with gusto if you are truly against it. However, we got scared in advance. I suspect that the key word here is education. If the EU were to regulate this area somehow, Estonia may not get away with its plan to transfer schools to Estonian before we know it. Is it right for this to be permitted happen?

And then we will say again that the European project is bad because it does nothing for people. Brussels is trying. And sometimes it comes across such walls.