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Minimum wages in Europe: an agreement within reach

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Imminent white smoke in the gray skies of Brussels: this Monday, December 6, the 27 European ministers responsible for employment and social affairs should find common ground on the European Commission’s proposal on minimum wages. The point is on the agenda of the “Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs” Council (EPSCO) organized in Brussels, and according to several concordant sources, an agreement is within reach.

Reduce gaps

European negotiators have wasted no time since October 28, 2020 – the date on which the European executive put this text on the table which aims, according to the institution, “to ensure that EU workers are protected by adequate minimum wages enabling them to live in dignity wherever they work”.

Contrary to what can sometimes be said, the European Commission has no power to set wages on the Old Continent. But she recommends reducing the gaps between the different minimum wages in Europe, knowing that there is a lot to do: the Bulgarian minimum wage is almost seven times lower than that of Luxembourg, at the top of the table…

France at the forefront

In a little over a year (it’s short, compared to some other negotiations), the Council of the EU, which brings together the States, and the MEPs in the European Parliament have managed to sort out the text and shape their respective bargaining position.

→ ANALYSIS. European Commission wants ‘fair’ minimum wages across the EU

If the EPSCO Council does indeed lead to an agreement, talks between the States and parliamentarians can begin, and that suits Paris’ affairs well: France will hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from January to June 2022. If a global agreement is reached during this semester, France, which continues to call for progress in the field of “social Europe”, will be able to hang this trophy on its hunting board.

Few constraints

However, this will be a symbolic victory, because in the Commission’s initial proposal, no minimum wage threshold had been legally fixed (the only numerical indication outlined by the Commission – that of fixing minimum wages at 60% median gross salary or 50% of the average gross salary – is not binding) and the Member States have been careful not to make certain thresholds compulsory. In other words, the final version of the directive should content itself with arguing for the (upward) alignment of minimum wages in Europe, but without ever really giving real orders of magnitude.

Only a very flexible directive, leaving a large margin of maneuver to the European capitals, could appear acceptable to the Scandinavian countries which do not have minimum wages fixed legally, but systems based on collective agreements negotiated, branch by branch, between the employers and unions. Whether they sit in the European Parliament or the Council of the EU, the priority of the representatives of these countries consists in preserving their model.

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