Speech by President von der Leyen at the 15th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation

General Secretary, dear Esther Lynch,

Dear delegates of national federations,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here in Berlin at your Congress and to celebrate the 50th anniversary. For half a century now, the European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC, has contributed to making Europe a better place for all. You have given workers a voice. You have mobilised for fair salaries and good jobs. You have championed the campaigns for gender equality and equal pay. If Europe has the highest labour standards in the world today, it is because of your commitment. So, I do not only want to congratulate you, but also thank you and your many colleagues for your tireless work.

Since 30 years, we have developed our Single Market. And we have done it in a very special way. As a social market economy, it never had the sole goal of market efficiency and liberalisation. To the contrary, our social market economy functions because of the constant dialogue between trade unions, employer associations and governments. A model that has collective bargaining at its very centre.

In some parts of the world, the goal of the entire economy is to maximise profit. Here in Europe, workers and society must also reap the benefits. In other parts of the world, the state sets the main economic course and strives for total control over businesses and people. Here in Europe, governments set the frame under democratic control, and social partners ensure that rules are tailored to companies and workers’ needs.

The European social market economy is of course about business opportunities. But at the same time, our model cares about people and communities. It is about each and every one of us, and society as a whole. Putting people first is a key factor for Europe’s success story. This human-centred approach must also be our compass in a changing world.

We are not only faced with a more competitive global economy but also with global warming, smarter technologies and ageing societies. Europe’s success in this new world is not granted. But we are in a good starting position. Thanks to the strong standing of our companies and our unique Single Market, the innovative power of our research and science community, and the outstanding skills of our workforce. I believe there are huge opportunities in all transformations we are facing.

Take the clean and digital economy, for instance. It is already creating countless new jobs. The European battery industry will need 800,000 additional skilled workers in the next two years alone. The solar industry will need one million skilled workers by 2030 – that is twice as many as we have today.

At the same time, we face new challenges: From growing automation to a lack of adequate skills for new tasks; from a global subsidies race to new forms of work for which the old rules simply do not fit. So our social market economy must keep pace with a changing world. That is where we need you. Trade unions know about workers’ worries. You know where our rules need an update. The proven system of collective bargaining between strong trade unions and employers that is Europe’s competitive edge in times of change. Because it helps to balance both: emerging opportunities and new risks. And it strives for both: for economic success and success for people. And at the centre of all action is the individual person. Or to put it in your words: We are in this ‘together, for a fair deal for workers.’

Allow me to take a few examples. First of all, everyone must get a fair chance to enter the job market. We have an unemployment rate of 6%. That is the lowest level on record – a big success. But at the same time, we have a youth unemployment rate of 14%. This cannot be. We always say: Young people are our future. Well, let us make sure that this future starts right away at the beginning of their work life. This is why we have created a Youth Guarantee: Every young European has to get a job offer or at least a training opportunity. We are complaining about lack of skilled personnel? Well, we just have to invest adequately in this huge potential.

Second example: Too many women are forced out of employment when they choose to have a child. This is just not right. These women are taking on the responsibility for a child and they want to work to earn the income of the family. This is the best that can happen to our society. They want to take on responsibility – the economy needs their skills – and we are making their life difficult? That is why we have introduced the Child Guarantee. We want that all families can afford childcare and early education for their kids. That is empowering parents, education for children and skills for our economy.

Third: Fairness is one cornerstone of our social market economy. There should be no such thing as working poverty. Everyone who works full time should be able to earn a living. And I am so glad that we took the historic step of passing a European Directive on minimum wages. It is high time that work pays. And work must pay for everyone: for men and women alike. There is not a single argument why – for the same type of work – a woman should be paid less than a man. This is why we now have a Directive on pay transparency. A basic principle of equality is finally cast into law. Equal work deserves equal pay.

Fourth, during COVID-19, when our streets became empty, our economies came to a halt and our lives were put on hold: That is when we created the first-ever European short-time work scheme, SURE, which saved millions of European jobs in all parts of our Union. And it gave our companies a head start when the economy picked up again, because they had not laid off their workers but kept the expertise on the job. That is social market economy at its best. In each one of these achievements, ETUC has played a key role. I hope you are as proud of them as I am.

But our work is far from over. In a fast-changing world, we must continue to give protection while rewarding performance. This work is particularly challenging in new sectors where technology is radically changing the rules of the game. Think about the massive leaps in artificial intelligence that we have seen in the past year alone. AI can massively improve the productivity of workers and companies across the board. But we have also seen companies using AI to ‘hire and fire’ their employees. Roughly one quarter of European companies are planning to use AI tools to support their recruitment processes, and the same tools can also be used for automated dismissals. Every algorithm is designed, and none is free of biases. So let me be clear: No one should be fired by an algorithm. The answer to the challenges that AI raises is first of all a principle. It is called ‘human in control’. Not trivial to implement, but of paramount importance.

In our proposal on platform work, we have put forward a new set of rules on the use of automated systems for the management of platform workers. This means that automated decisions must be checked by humans. This is a good first step. But algorithms increasingly shape work beyond labour platforms. So we are keeping an eye on the potential need to regulate the use of algorithms in the wider world of work. With the Artificial Intelligence Act, for example, we have set clear rules for high-risk applications of AI so that companies and programmers can keep advancing and innovating while citizens and their rights are always protected.

Finally, all workers deserve the chance to grow and to progress along their career. We need to create better conditions for lifelong learning. Trade unions have been leading the way for years on this topic. You struck deals with coal mining businesses to retrain workers when a mine closes. You developed solutions with energy companies to train their workers on new energy sources and energy efficiency. As you said, Esther, skills must be treated not as a cost but as an asset. That is why we have set, for the first time, a European target on skills. By 2030, we want to have at least 60% of adults in training every year. We made 2023 the Year of Skills, and we have launched the Pact for Skills. We are matching companies’ needs with the right training for workers to help millions of Europeans to upskill and reskill. Jacques Delors spoke of a right to lifelong training already in the 1980s, it is high time to make it happen.

Dear friends,

The basic promise of the social market economy is prosperity while protecting and empowering workers. It is a promise that our parents and grandparents built for us. And I want this promise to be true for today’s Europeans and for our children, too. It must be true for the young women and men who want to have children and keep advancing in their career. It must be true for those who have lost their job half-way through their working life and deserve a new opportunity. It must be true for those who have worked hard for decades and now wish to retire in dignity. It is the promise of a fair deal between workers and employers, the core principle of the social market economy. No matter what challenges await us, no matter how fast the world keeps spinning, we can stay true to the European promise to put people first.

Thank you for 50 years of hard work. And let me wish you all the best for the next 50 years to come.

Long live Europe.