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Talking Europe – ‘The pension age cannot be same for everybody’: EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights

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Talking Europe speaks to the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit. With anger growing in France about the government’s push to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64, and the EU facing an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, his portfolio is very much in the spotlight –  including recommendations to encourage a Minimum Income for all.

“The pension age cannot be the same for everybody […] There has to be a criteria of hardship taken into account.” For Schmit, the French government’s reforms to the pension age cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. The EU’s Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights said any raising of the retirement age must go hand-in-hand with programmes to ensure that people at the end of their careers do have realistic employment opportunities. “If you want people to work longer, you have to prepare them to work longer. That’s about working conditions, investing in their skills, they might evolve and change the way they work. If you consider that someone might work the same way when they are 20 as when they are 64, then this is not realistic.”

At the heart of Commissioner Schmit’s portfolio are European citizens’ Social Rights. The EU announced last year an objective to lift 15 million people out of poverty by 2030. Schmit reiterated his commitment to that goal, and outlined his Commission’s recommendations as to how member states should advance: “Not just by having a better minimum income which allows you to have a decent life, but also by being included in society, to find a job, to be skilled, to have decent housing at an affordable price. These are elements which help to combat poverty, so I think what we need to combat poverty is a comprehensive approach.” Although many of the proposed measures are national competencies that are up to member states to adopt, for Schmit, the EU’s vigilance can ensure progress is achieved. He said: “We will use the recommendation, and we will follow up on member states policies precisely to get poverty down, and to achieve the objective of at least 15 million people out of poverty.”

On a more everyday level lies the question of employment status for so-called platform workers – for example, delivery riders for companies like UberEats. While many of the companies themselves are opposed to overly strict rules that would give workers full employment rights, the EU Council is currently debating new protections – with the Swedish Presidency of the Council seeking a compromise. For Schmit, any deal “has to have an impact on the living and working conditions of the platform workers. Which does not mean that every platform worker should become an employee, but those who are employees should be treated as employees, with all the rights and all the benefits that employees get”. To counter arguments from the companies that they require that flexibility to survive, Schmit insisted that this shouldn’t come at the expense of workers’ rights. “Platform [work] does not mean that you have to be self-employed, or you should not have the normal health insurance, pension and also at least minimum wage.”

Finally, with the cost-of-living crisis continuing to bite across the bloc, and small- and medium-sized company bankruptcies spiking in the fourth quarter of last year –  up over 25 percent on the previous quarter – Schmit insisted that the increase in EU subsidies during and after the Covid-19 pandemic had helped many survive, but that the distribution of further aid should prioritise companies that are most likely to thrive. He said: “Those who have the strength, who have the potential to continue, they have to be supported, but that cannot mean that you support everyone (…) We have to have a more cautious view on that, but certainly we have to allow small- and medium-sized companies to continue, because after Covid we have inflation and some of them also struggle with rising prices.”

Programme produced by Isabelle Romero, Perrine Desplats and Sophie Samaille