This report by the ETUI research institute of the European Trade Union Confederation presents a detailed map of inequality in Europe and its recent evolution in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Inequalities have always been regarded as divisive and socially corrosive, but for some time now this has been more than an intuition; the data have not only shown that these are wide-ranging effects but also that the differences between societies are large, but even small differences in the amount of inequality matter and, although the poor are affected the worst, that inequality affects almost everybody”, writes Kate Pickett, who highlights the confluence of the pandemic with existing socio-economic and health inequalities. Although the pandemic has certainly affected all classes of society, pre-existing inequalities have amplified the negative effect of the pandemic: “more people become sick, more people are sicker than they would otherwise have been, and more people have died, because of those pre-existing patterns of equality”. For instance, workers in low-paid jobs have often been unable to shield themselves from infection, either because their work was considered essential and they were unable to shelter at home, or because they could not afford not to go to work.
Every crisis prompts pledges of reform, most of which are never acted upon. There is every possibility that this will be the case once again with the coronavirus pandemic. The author nonetheless calls for a democratic, economic and social revolution. In addition to tax reform aiming to tax the wealthiest individuals more, Pickett talks of the introduction of a form of universal minimum income, but also of improved representation of employees within companies and the annual transfer of company shares into a fund controlled by employees. This restructuring of capitalism would be part of a more inclusive procedure, taking account of the inequalities and concerns of all citizens. “Inequality is also at the heart of the climate crisis” and it is futile to consider that the energy transition might be possible without taking account of this, Pickett explains, pointing out that the gilets jaunes movement in France is a perfect demonstration of how a feeling of injustice can prevent public acceptance of a tax measure presented as a means to reduce fuel consumption.
“Just as big an obstacle to sustainability is consumerism and over-consumption which, driven by the state that is intensified by inequality, creates pressures and demands for ever higher incomes and leads people to see sustainability as a threat to living standards rather than as an opportunity for an more fulfilling and balanced way of life”, Pickett explains. She goes on to recognise that there are also genuine calls for change among the population: “in Britain, polls suggest that only about one in ten of us would actually like life to go back to the ‘old normal’ [i.e. before the pandemic]. That feels like a strong mandate for change. And what people want is not just stronger health and public services and better treatment and pay for essential workers; they also want a more compassionate society that cares for people struggling with their mental or physical health, that gives people a better work-life balance and more control over their work (including where and for how long they work) and that cares about the environment”.
In a joint article about the employment market, Wouter Zwysen et al. regret the fact that the action plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights (approved in Porto in May 2021) fails to rebalance the priority accorded to the modernisation and inclusiveness of the labour market over living and working conditions. They consider that the emphasis should instead be placed on training and adapting workers’ skills to changes brought about by the digital and green transitions. The authors also expressed concerns about whether the European Pillar of Social Rights has been taken into account in the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRP) approved under the implementation of the recovery and resilience facility (the European post-Covid-19 envelope of 672.5 billion euros).
Torsten Müller et al. warn that the proposed directive on the minimum wage currently under discussion may end up not being a directive worthy of the name. If it is to help to reduce inequality and poverty, the directive must as a minimum place an obligation on member states to take measures to ensure that the minimum wage is not less than the ‘double decency threshold’, in other words 60% of the median wage and 50% of the average wage, and that the average rate of collective bargaining coverage is at least 70%. The authors argue that the directive will make sense only if it has the effect of reducing the number of people earning a minimum wage and living in poverty. “The proposed directive on adequate minimum wages is one of the last chances to prove to the millions of workers who cannot make a decent living from what they earn that initiatives like the European Pillar of Social Rights and, more recently, the Porto Social Commitment are more than just window dressing. A failure of the proposed directive in ensuring that improvements for minimum wage earners would further undermine the legitimacy of the European integration project and strengthen right-wing populist forces with a clear nationalist and anti-European agenda”, the authors conclude. (OJ)
Kate Pickett et autalres. Benchmarking Working Europe 2021 – Unequal Europe. European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). ISBN: 978-2-8745-2615-2. 186 pages. The paper version costs €30. The report can also be downloaded free of charge from the website of the European Trade Union Institute: http://www.etui.org
The Black Sea Region and European Security
Paul Taylor has just published a lengthy study for Friends of Europe on the Black Sea region, which has become “one of the most bitterly contested and dangerous strategic zones” within the neighbourhood of Europe. He stresses that current tensions surrounding Ukraine further reinforces the urgent need to stabilise this region and sets out various recommendations to this end.
“A fresh start should include more European political engagement with Black Sea states”, recommends the author, who suggests the launch of a kind of ‘Eastern Partnership Plus’ for Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova to bolster the attractiveness of the standards and economy of the EU and speed up the fight against corruption in these countries. The European Union, which has adopted integrated strategies for the Arctic and the Sahel regions, would be well advised to do the same for the Black Sea region. A strategy of this kind could cover investments, trade, energy, transport, navigation and fisheries, protection of the environment, biodiversity, contact between populations and security. Taylor also argues that it would be “self-defeating” to terminate Turkey’s status as candidate for EU membership. The EU should avoid closing doors and prepare for the possibility of resuming political and economic relations, should Turkey decide once again to adopt a more cooperative attitude following Erdoğan’s departure one day. For the time being, the EU should clarify the situation by publicly announcing the tougher sanctions that Russia would face if it undertook any further military action against Ukraine.
In Taylor’s view, NATO should make it clear that the accession of Ukraine and Georgia are not on the agenda in the foreseeable future and that the Alliance has no intention of establishing a military presence in these countries. Equally, it should at the same time continue to support the modernisation of the Ukrainian and Georgian armed forces. Germany and France should follow the example set by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Turkey by offering Ukraine bilateral defence cooperation to help it to modernise, train and equip its troops. It urges the United States to (1) maintain permanent naval and air presence in the Black Sea, (2) join the Minsk process alongside France and Germany, assuming that Ukraine and Russia consent to this and (3) urge Ukraine and Georgia to implement judicial reforms and aggressive strategies to tackle corruption.
The author also takes the view that Russia should (1) accept the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, (2) seek understanding with the United States on the stability of the Black Sea region and (3) within the NATO-Russia Council with a view to developing confidence-building measures and deconflicting communications. Finally, Ukraine and Georgia are called upon to implement vital reforms and refrain from agitating for rapid NATO membership. (OJ)
Paul Taylor. Murky Waters – The Black Sea Region and European Security. Friends of Europe, 26 January 2022. 101 pages. (https://www.friendsofeurope.org )
Les valeurs des Russes
Analysing the results of European Values Studies surveys carried out in Russia since 1999, Pierre Bréchon and Myriam Désert identify the peculiarities of Russian society and how these have evolved over time in this article. Compared to the countries of Western Europe, they note that there is “a lesser attachment to equal rights between men and women and free and fair elections” (our translation throughout). “Conversely, the emphasis on economic and social democracy (…) is greater and equality of income is highly prized, which could be explained both by the peasant political culture of the days of the tsar and the Communist legacy”, the authors write, going on to stress that less value is placed on obedience of the government. Even so, 80% of the Russians who responded state since 2008 that democracy is a good system, up from just 63% in 1999. And although having a strong leader was seen as good or very good up to 2008 (59% of respondents), only 32% of respondents found this a good thing in 2017.
In this country of deeply-rooted nationalism, 62% of those who describe themselves as not very nationalistic reject immigrants, compared to 80% of those who describe themselves as very nationalistic. By way of comparison, rejection of migrants in 2017 stood at 67% of respondents in the countries of the eastern European Union, compared to 42% in Western Europe. Although guaranteeing the freedom of expression (59% of respondents) and increasing public participation in decision-making (53%) are the main priorities of Western Europeans, Russians place greater emphasis on maintaining order and keeping inflation under control (72% and 75% respectively).
Russia’s history has shaped a society that is little politicised, bringing with it a low tendency towards protest, the authors stress, adding: “this does not, however, mean absolute submission to the powers that be. During the first terms of Vladimir Putin, there was an implicit contract in place: many people agreed to give him a free hand long as he took care of the material well-being of society. With growing pauperisation, things change (…). State interference in citizens’ lives is not easily tolerated, which shows that individuals have little acceptance of surveillance by state bodies, less than is the case in Western Europe (…). The strong opposition to the coronavirus vaccine, despite the recent explosion in numbers of deaths, confirms their enormous resistance to the intrusion of the authorities in their private lives”. Russians are also very mistrustful of others: 76% choose prudence and just 24% confidence, and this confidence has not changed for 20 years. The Russian level of individualism is also the highest of all countries surveyed, along with Hungary and Estonia.
The Russian powers have undertaken to stir up a desire for national unity by playing on the theme of Russia as a besieged fortress, under threat from the Western world, the authors point out, arguing that the “effectiveness of this tactic is wearing out, particularly as the material situation of the country worsens”. This means that “although a propensity towards authoritarianism, which has been an overarching theme of Russian culture for many years, still makes itself felt today, there is a certain erosion of the authoritarian tropism. Surveys carried out by the Levada Centre following the general elections of autumn 2021 also show an erosion of the sense of powerlessness: 30% of Russians now feel that they can influence the way things are in the country (compared to just 10% in 2006)”. The report is available in the latest edition of the review Futuribles. (OJ)
Pierre Bréchon and Myrian Désert. Les Russes sont-ils adeptes des valeurs illibérales et autoritaires? (Available in French only) Futuribles, edition 446, January-February 2022. ISBNs: 978-2-8438-7459-8. 136 pages. €22,00