Mr. Jackie Morin is head of Unit for “Free movement of workers and coordination of social security schemes” in the European Commission's Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion since 2008. Before, he was head of Unit for European social dialogue. We asked him to give us an insight into the current activities in his unit and the plans and strategies for the future.
trESS: Mr. Morin, can you describe the position and role of your Unit within DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion? In other words, what can you do for the European citizen?
J. Morin (JM): The Unit is part of the Directorate in charge of employment, social legislation and social dialogue. It deals with the free movement of workers and the coordination of social security. Both domains are part of the first acquis in the social field. Our mission is to contribute to the EU2020 strategy, in particular by promoting a better environment for intra-EU mobility and facilitating the functioning of the free movement of workers as a cornerstone of the internal market. Together with the 35 colleagues of the Unit, we do our best to ensure the rights of citizens moving within Europe. Our activities are directly linked to the daily life and interests of EU citizens. That makes working in this Unit very interesting.
trESS: Do you receive a lot of questions and complaints from citizens?
JM: Yes, we do. Actually, we receive the most questions and complaints in the DG. This amounts to 1.200 requests on average per year, of which most are directly addressed from the citizen to the European Commission. This is comforting, as it means that citizens find their way to European law and to the EU institutions. Especially migrant workers are confronted with Union law along their way and actively search for the right channels – sometimes via ‘Your Europe’, via EURES or via other organisations as go-betweens – to solve their problems. For many citizens, contacting the Unit constitutes the last resort to present and make their cases. They write to us after having been unsuccessful with national authorities and social security institutions. In doing so, they need to have a certain degree of awareness on the rights associated to EU law. Since 2008, a new system has been introduced by the European Commission for the introduction of individual complaints related to EU law. A single access point is available for citizens on the Europa website. On the total of formal complaints received by the European Commission last year, 7.5% were falling in the competence of DG Employment, and most of them were for my Unit.
trESS: How do you react to such requests?
JM: We are very grateful for the information they provide and for their trust in the European Commission. Through the cases they submit to our attention, they help us to identify the information gaps, the administrative problems or the misapplication of EU law. As already said, every year we get around 1.200 requests. Each of them receives an individualised answer and a vast number necessitate many verifications and clarifications (for example contact with national authorities or analysis of national schemes). In some cases, the trESS national experts are helping us to better understand the national rules through a flexible and ad hoc consultation mechanism. This is very helpful. One complaint results on average in the production of 4 to 5 letters, which illustrates the intensive follow-up that is given to every complaint. We also have very strict procedures in that regard, in order to help the citizen in the best possible way.
All our infringement procedures (around 50 ongoing) are based on individual complaints. Of course, some complaints only require a follow-up in order to merely inform the citizen about the applicable EU rules. In other cases, a contact with the concerned social security institution is needed in order to verify and possibly rectify the situation. In a third category of complaints we see a real problem and we start the infringement procedure.
trESS: The new Regulations 883/2004 and 987/2009 are up and running. They seem not to have caused drastic transition issues. However, we must acknowledge that the Basic Regulation is almost 10 years old and that social security is a dynamic field. Do you already see a need for further adaptation in the near future?
JM: There are two distinct dimensions in this question. First, the Regulations by their nature (coordination and not harmonisation) need constant updating to integrate national developments. This is why we propose regularly what is called ‘miscellaneous amendments’ which bring technical changes to the regulations and their annexes. The second aspect of the question is linked to the importance given to a number of structural changes: new forms of mobility, economic and social imbalances between the Member States, cohesion between the different social security systems and the evolution of the forms of social protection (cf. the employability paradigm).
Do these changes lead to needs to adapt the Regulations more fundamentally? The answer is yes, as we already know that the full potential of modernisation is not in place yet. At least on one chapter, unemployment, the modernisation exercise launched in 1998 needs to be reassessed taking benefit of the policy objective from the EU 2020 strategy on mobility and the new decision process brought by the Lisbon Treaty. But also in the field of long-term care, we are investigating how a better coordination could be achieved. We are investigating this with an open mind and try to identify a solution on the basis of a thorough impact assessment, comprising detailed data collection and consultation of stakeholders. But the simple answer is yes, we still see room for further improvement.
trESS: One of the allegedly problematic issues often mentioned in daily practice is the current absence of special rules for the determination of the applicable legislation for the international transport sector. Is this indeed a problem and if so, how could it be solved?
JM: The determination of the legislation applicable in the field of international transport is by nature more difficult than for other sectors, due to the fact that the place of work constantly moves with the worker. A solution was found for air transport with the introduction of the home base rule in the context of the discussion of the last round of miscellaneous amendments. We expect the adoption next June. We are monitoring the situation in the other international transport sectors and will assess with the Administrative Commission if action is needed in this field. However, at the moment we do not have the evidence that immediate action is needed.
trESS: One of the main changes of the modernisation exercise under the new coordination framework was the electronic exchange of data, now known as the EESSI-system. When and how will we feel this new instrument in daily life?
JM: As of May 2014, social security institutions will not be authorised anymore to use paper forms, as every exchange between the institutions should be dealt with electronically. However, the electronic exchange in social security coordination is much more than introducing a new technology. I'm convinced it will produce a revolution in the way the coordination operates. It will create the conditions for a better capacity to react, to instruct individual dossiers (e.g. for old-age pensions) with shorter deadlines, for higher data security and less errors. It will also guarantee a better national application of the regulations and extend the need to give more extensive information to citizens. It will open up possible new developments such as real time service extensions. In future phases, this would enable e.g. on-line checks of the validity of an EHIC by a doctor or of an A1 document by the labour inspectorates.
Building such a system is challenging, especially because the national IT systems are as varied as their social security schemes and bridging them requires a lot of feedback and consultation from the users. We are in the phase of adapting the product specifications to the Member States’ needs in order to put in place a robust and well accepted messaging system between the 15.000 institutions dealing with coordination in Europe. This has caused a delay for the launching of EESSI, but that is to ensure that the system is fully adapted to the needs of the institutions that will have to work with it on a daily basis.
trESS: Are there any other plans or strategies on the table with regard to social security coordination?
JM: There are several issues on which we are actively working. Let me mention one of them. The Commission will, on the day of publication of this newsletter, publish a Communication on the External Dimension of EU Social Security Coordination and 4 proposals for Council Decisions. The Commission's Communication underlines that there is a fragmented approach to social security coordination as regards the rest of the world. It emphasises the need for strengthened cooperation between Member States on bilateral social security agreements made with non-EU countries, e.g. in the field of fraud and error. It promotes the development of a common EU approach. One possibility suggested is the conclusion of EU social security agreements with selected third countries. In addition, the Commission proposes the adoption of four Council decisions concerning the EU position on social security coordination with Albania, Montenegro, San Marino and Turkey.
trESS: On a more general level, do you see a special role for social security coordination in current times of economic crisis?
JM: Certainly. Social security coordination is mentioned in almost all recent EU policy papers. Making progress in the achievement of the internal market including the dimension of free movement of workers is a prerequisite for the improvement of economic conditions. Social security coordination is contributing to the overall performance by making a better allocation of labour possible, by enabling transnational qualification acquisition and by guaranteeing the free choice of the place for retirement. The coordination is a unique mechanism which brings together freedom and security, which opens the range of choices and opportunities for European citizens and, at the same time protects their social security rights.
trESS: One of the hot topics in social security systems is the activation of the population. Do such measures interfere with smooth social security coordination?
JM: Activation of social protection policies is seen at European level as a means to fight poverty traps. However, we have to look carefully at the impact of the inclusion of activation mechanisms in social security schemes and this is why we have asked the trESS network to produce a report this year on that topic.
trESS: Social security coordination is a very complex and technical matter, but it touches upon the lives of many citizens. How do you make sure that the message of its importance reaches the streets of Europe?
JM: During the last years, we have tried to improve our information and communication tools. I'm sure you have seen our viral clips on EHIC which were top listed in several occasions. We have totally rebuilt our website, integrating some material prepared by trESS such as the glossary of keywords and a FAQ of the trESS e-learning tool. Several of our publications are real "best sellers" and are available for free. We plan to continue to invest in bringing the information closer to the citizens and are developing a network of national communication officers in charge of social security coordination in the Member States. We will also take an active part in the 2013 European year on citizenship. Finally, in order to stimulate public awareness raising actions as well as activities improving exchanges between social security institutions in the Member States, we have launched a new call for proposals on "Actions for Cooperation and Information on Social Security Coordination" (see “News from the Commission” in this e-newsletter for more information). In other words, we do the maximum to get our message across.
trESS: Thank you very much!