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Document 52023AE3875

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on digitalisation in social security coordination: facilitating free movement in the Single Market (COM(2023) 501 final)

EESC 2023/03875

OJ C, C/2024/2486, 23.4.2024, ELI: http://data.europa.eu/eli/C/2024/2486/oj (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, GA, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

ELI: http://data.europa.eu/eli/C/2024/2486/oj

European flag

Official Journal
of the European Union

EN

C series


C/2024/2486

23.4.2024

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on digitalisation in social security coordination: facilitating free movement in the Single Market

(COM(2023) 501 final)

(C/2024/2486)

Rapporteur:

Krzysztof BALON

Co-rapporteur:

Maria del Carmen BARRERA CHAMORRO

Referral

European Commission, 13.11.2023

Legal basis

Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

Section responsible

Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship

Adopted in section

23.1.2024

Adopted at plenary

14.2.2024

Plenary session No

585

Outcome of vote

(for/against/abstentions)

196/2/3

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) stresses that, despite efforts to improve the cross-border flow of social security information, the complexity of bureaucratic procedures, the manual procedures, the need for certain documents in physical form and difficulties verifying or validating them slow down administrative activities and are in conflict with citizens’ and companies’ needs and demands, which cannot be met in a quick and agile manner. The EESC therefore welcomes the European Commission’s Communication, with its aim of speeding up and simplifying cross-border access to social security services, and firmly supports the Commission’s approach of supporting the digitalisation of mechanisms for social security and healthcare coordination.

1.2.

The EESC notes, however, that progress with social security digitalisation is very slow: the process has been going on for more than a decade. It urges the Commission and the Member States to redouble their efforts to move this process forward more quickly, given the harm to workers and companies alike in terms of labour mobility that results from the lack of solutions for social security guarantees.

1.3.

Since the Communication does not address the issue of how the public administrations of individual Member States are to be prepared for the implementation of the envisaged instruments and in view of the poor development of digitalisation in some Member States, the Committee calls for a viable action plan on the implementation of digitalisation in social security coordination to be drawn up immediately. A bottom-up approach is called for that takes into account the needs and specific situations of both social security institutions and all stakeholders: citizens, employers, companies and social economy entities. In this context the EESC draws attention to the need to take into account the functional aspects of the systems to be implemented, respecting their compatibility, and to the need to take into account the degree of digital exclusion in the Member States.

1.4.

The EESC stresses that the digitalisation of social security coordination is an obligation for the Member States under the coordination regulations. For those covered by these regulations that are not able to use electronic means, solutions should be put in place, and as long as no solutions are adopted, identifying by electronic means should be an option and not a requirement so that they can exercise their rights and there are no new obstacles to free movement.

1.5.

The EESC considers that the digitalisation of social security alone will not achieve all the desired objectives in terms of removing obstacles to free movement unless the reform of Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council (1) on the coordination of social security systems, which is currently being negotiated in a trilogue, is finalised. Therefore, the EESC invites the Commission and the co-legislators to pursue their efforts to finalise this process pending since 2016.

1.6.

The EESC is extremely concerned about the situation of those protected by the coordinating regulations who are digitally excluded, and regrets that the Communication does not specifically address this problem.

1.7.

The EESC welcomes the initiative to create a digital wallet (European Social Security Pass (ESSPASS) plans to use the EU Digital Identity Wallet (EUDI wallet)) to store the documents required for inter-State movements. Similarly, the creation of a digital identity allowing people to be identified rapidly (via a mobile phone or other mechanisms) is also welcomed. In order to avoid digital exclusion, the EESC calls, however, for solutions for those people who are not able to use electronic means, when people are communicating or identifying themselves to the social security administrations. As long as no solutions are adopted or put in place, identifying by electronic means should be an option and not a requirement.

1.8.

The EESC considers that the system for the exchange of information between the institutions of different Member States must, on the one hand, allow the full identification of people within the scope of the coordination regulations of the Union; on the other hand, information exchange systems must take into account the protection of data, including the full application of the provisions of Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council (2) (General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)), especially in the context of the varying administrative practices in the application of the GDPR across Member States.

1.9.

The EESC notes that the Commission has not indicated the current scale of administrative obstacles for people covered by the coordination regulations, or authorities and businesses in the context of coordination in the use of social security systems. No studies have been presented to indicate, even in an approximate manner, the time taken to deal with cases which the introduction of the planned digital solutions would reduce. In this context digitalisation is not an end in itself, but merely an instrument to achieve different goals.

1.10.

The EESC also regrets that, despite the passage of time, the Electronic Exchange of Social Security Information (EESSI) has not yet reached its full operational capacity, as the Commission’s Communication indicates that this objective is expected to be achieved by the end of 2024. The EESC also regrets that the Commission has not yet announced whether the completion of the ESSPASS pilot project will lead to legislation in this area, and expects the Commission to consider, in parallel to the development of the process, drafting legislation necessary for the success of the process and for proper recognition of rights, to be operational and take effect as soon as possible.

1.11.

The EESC is concerned about the high risk of cyber-attacks and therefore believes that care should be taken to strengthen the relevant IT systems at European level, with more robust prevention and security measures. Furthermore, with the legal support provided by the General Data Protection Regulation and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, efforts should be made to create a climate of trust among the public so that they understand that their data is fully protected and that they will not be used for undesirable purposes.

1.12.

The EESC proposes a permanent exchange of best practices between Member States on digitalising coordination of social security systems. In order to encourage and promote this, the EESC suggests that the European Commission and the European Labour Authority organise a conference in which Member States’ governments and civil society participate.

2.   Background and introductory comments

2.1.

The free movement of persons within the European Union requires the social security rights of persons who for any reason move to another EU country to be preserved.

2.2.

This is guaranteed by coordination of national social security systems under Article 48 TFEU, which combines national provisions so that rights acquired in one country are recognised without restriction in another thus resolving transnational legal problems that may arise in this area due to the movement of EU citizens throughout the territory of the Union.

2.3.

The EESC would like to stress that administrative cooperation within coordination is not as efficient as could be expected. Despite efforts to improve the cross-border flow of social security information (mainly via the EESSI), the complexity of bureaucratic procedures, the manual procedures, the need for certain documents in physical form, difficulties in verifying or validating them, slow down administrative activities and are in conflict with the needs and demands of the people covered, which cannot be met in a quick and agile manner.

2.4.

The EESC therefore welcomes the European Commission’s Communication, with its aim to speed up and simplify cross-border access to social security services, and strongly supports the Commission’s approach to support the digitalisation of mechanisms for social security and healthcare coordination. The EESC notes with satisfaction that the Commission published the Communication thirty years after the launch of both the single market and European Union citizenship, thus highlighting the link between the further development of single market freedoms and European citizenship and progress in the digital transformation. The Committee also notes that the Commission Communication is an important part of the implementation of the Digital Decade programme (3).

2.5.

The EESC stresses that digitalisation of social security and healthcare coordination mechanisms might considerably improve the exercise of social protection rights of migrants and their families, which, in turn, will facilitate free movement, which requires digital exclusion to be eradicated. This issue is central for the social partners and civil society organisations as, in 2021, the share of people aged 16 to 74 who had at least basic overall digital skills was very low. The lowest figure was recorded in Romania (28 %), followed by Bulgaria (31 %) and Poland (43 %) (4).

2.6.

The EESC welcomes the intention to speed up implementation of the EESSI, which brings together 32 countries (27 EU countries, the European Economic Area countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), the Swiss Confederation and the United Kingdom). The EESSI is not an end in itself but a tool for facilitating free movement in the market by simplifying procedures. It is not intended to achieve digital uniformity in all the States. In fact, there is no common social security software for all the administrations involved; rather, data are exchanged through a liaison body.

2.7.

The EESC regrets that, despite the passage of time, the EESSI has not yet reached full operational capacity, with the Commission Communication indicating that this objective is expected to be achieved by the end of 2024. However, implementation of the EESSI is proceeding much more slowly than expected: Article 95 of Regulation (EC) No 987/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council (5), which provides for transitional periods for electronic data exchanges, lays down that these periods must not exceed 24 months from the date of entry into force of the Implementing Regulation (i.e. from 1 May 2010). The EESC also invites the Commission to announce in due time whether the completion of the ESSPASS pilot project will lead to legislation in this area.

3.   Specific comments

3.1.

The EESC notes that the Commission’s Communication does not contain detailed statistical data or research results relating to the issues it covers. In particular, the Commission has not indicated the current scale of administrative obstacles for citizens, authorities and businesses in the context of coordination in the use of social security systems. No studies have been presented to indicate, even in an approximate manner, the time taken to deal with cases which the introduction of the planned digital solutions would reduce — digitalisation cannot be a goal in itself. In particular, the Commission has not identified, as a point of reference, the quantitative use of cross-border healthcare, A1 certificates or European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC) by EU citizens in the long term. An intuitive perception of the relevance of the lines of action cannot be sufficient for further development of the activities, which should be preceded by a sound analysis of the data.

3.2.

The Communication does not address the issue of how the public administrations of individual Member States are to be prepared for the implementation of the envisaged instruments. In view of the weak development of digitalisation in some Member States, the ambitious action plan outlined in the Communication must confront the actual capabilities of the approximately 3 500 institutions operating in the Member States in this area, especially given the plan to make citizens’ health records fully digital by 2030 under the Digital Decade programme.

3.3.

While, as noted in the Communication, measures to digitalise public services and modernise public administration processes are included in all National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs), it would be useful to analyse how and to what extent each Member State has taken this aspect into account in their plan. In addition, it should be noted that, for various reasons, some Member States are not currently using funds from NRRPs.

3.4.

An important aspect of the implementation of the solutions proposed in the Communication is the prevention of digital exclusion (see data in point 2.5.). The digital transformation must be carried out in a way that allows for the inclusion of all groups of society, regardless of age, disability or other characteristics that may foster or exacerbate digital exclusion and discrimination. The proposals contained in the Communication raise legitimate doubts as to the possibility for digitally excluded persons to use them, which may hinder the use of appropriate mechanisms. Exclusion may also arise at the level of actual access to the system that provides the service.

3.5.

Therefore, in line with a common European approach, attention should be paid to the digital skills that citizens and businesses (especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)) should possess in order to interact with the proposed new digitalisation framework. In this context, the EESC calls for the provision of adequate, sufficient and easy-to-understand information online, for national and European support to facilitate adaptation to the new situation, and for quality infrastructure and funding to be made available to ensure access to the digital environment for all and active engagement of social partner organisations at national level in awareness raising, training and disseminating of relevant information. Built-in support services in the various interfaces (e.g. chatbots, FAQs, etc.) are essential in order to empower all citizens to make use of digital services.

3.6.

Preparing the institutions in each Member State for the implementation of the solutions proposed in the Communication must also include technical aspects, such as cooperation using different IT systems in different Member States, set up at different times and based on different technological and IT solutions.

3.7.

The system for the exchange of information between the institutions of different Member States must allow the full identification of citizens. In this context, attention should be paid, inter alia, to the spelling of names, which may vary from one Member State to another for the same person.

3.8.

At the same time, information exchange systems must take into account the protection of data, in particular of sensitive data, including the full application of the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation, especially in the context of the varying administrative practices in the application of the GDPR across Member States. The risk of cyber-attacks should also be tackled effectively. The corresponding IT systems must be reinforced with more robust prevention and security measures, including with a view to addressing the risk of cyber-attacks.

3.9.

The Commission Communication does not provide information on the carbon footprint of the proposed mechanisms, which makes it difficult to reliably assess the proposed solutions in relation to the objective of achieving a climate-neutral European Union by 2050, although a reduction in paper consumption will certainly have a positive impact on the environment.

4.   Comments on selected aspects of the Communication

4.1.

The EESSI will undoubtedly represent a great step forward for national administrations by allowing them to replace paper forms with structured electronic documents (SED), which are exchanged during electronic coordination procedures.

4.2.

The EESC welcomes the EESSI public catalogue of European social security institutions (6) as it allows individuals and businesses to access the competent social security institutions of the countries where Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 applies. However, the sheer complexity of coordinated national social security systems means that the information required cannot always be obtained via this public interface.

4.3.

The EESC believes that the Digital Gateway initiative is a positive step forward, which by December 2023 should allow citizens and businesses to access and complete ‘the request to determine which social security legislation covers the holder (the output of which is the portable document A1), applications for the European Health Insurance Card, and requests for pensions calculations’. However, the Commission’s Communication does not take into account the digital divide (by gender, age and social status).

4.4.

The EESC believes that, for as long as any digital exclusion continues to exist, the Commission should clarify what measures will be put in place so that the use of new technologies does not limit the possibilities of access for those citizens who are not able to use electronic means.

4.5.

The EESC regrets that the Commission Communication does not assess the possible disadvantages resulting from the digitalisation of the coordination of social security systems. There can be an impact on the number of social security staff at national level and the risk of complaints from citizens and business already exists in some Member States because not all the necessary information on social security matters can be obtained through an interface.

4.6.

The EESC calls on Member States to keep the social security information on official websites fully updated, in order to ensure legal security for workers and businesses. The information should be available at least in English, and ideally in all official EU languages. The EESC expects that all social security services will be accessible online by the end of 2024. This tight deadline requires all the conditions for success to be met.

4.7.

The EESC hopes that the reform of the provisions of Regulation (EC) No 883/2004, which has been being discussed among the co-legislators since 2016, will soon come to a satisfactory outcome. Otherwise, the only change will be from paper to electronic format, while legal obstacles to free movement will remain.

4.8.

The full implementation of digital tools for cross-border mobility will considerably help to harness the full potential of the single market for companies, while securing the protection of social security rights that have been or are in the process of being acquired by workers.

4.9.

The EESC welcomes the initiative to create a digital wallet (ESSPASS plans to use the EUDI wallet) to store the documents required for inter-State movements. The digitalisation of documents will allow their immediate verification. Similarly, the creation of a digital identity allowing the rapid identification of persons (via a mobile phone or other mechanisms) is also welcomed. However, the EESC urges the Commission to find solutions for these people who are not able to identify themselves by electronic means. The EESC wishes to make it very clear that it cannot be mandatory for people to identify themselves by electronic means. It must be an option for the persons concerned, not a duty as long as no solutions are adopted for people in digital exclusion. The EESC considers that progress could be made by developing electronic forms. Developing a digital identity in the field of cross-border social security could encourage the use of this type of form.

4.10.

The EESC considers it necessary for the EU to take effective measures with regard to the Once Only Technical System (which enables information to be shared between public administrations across borders between EU countries) (7), which implements the Once Only Principle (8), so that no additional burden is placed on citizens and businesses — the aim of digitalisation should be to streamline procedures. This is another of the unanimous complaints of businesses: the computerisation of administration does not prevent many formalities from continuing to be cumbersome — even for professionals in this area — and it is therefore utopian to expect citizens to be able to complete them on their own in most cases.

4.11.

The EESC believes that the introduction of a European Social Security Pass should be very positive in view of the undeniable practical benefits for citizens, although it believes that the implementation of this project will require more effort from the Commission. The EESC points out that innovative solutions have already been adopted in some Member States that have achieved the expected results, such as the integration of European health insurance cards with an identity card, passport or national health insurance card.

4.12.

The EHIC initiative is a good example which has illustrated the limitations of the digitalisation of social security coordination. In the absence of a European database the door is open to fraud, because it may happen that a person who applied for and obtained an EHIC does not keep the status of beneficiary for the whole period that the EHIC is valid. This is how fraud occurs: someone who is no longer a beneficiary according to national legislation continues to have an EHIC, and there is no way of verifying this at the same time that the health care is provided.

4.13.

The Committee welcomes the creation and implementation of the European Health Data Space, which will be under the umbrella of the General Data Protection Regulation and will make it possible to better meet cross-border healthcare needs and speed up all medical and administrative formalities to be carried out in this regard, especially the reimbursement of medical expenses.

4.14.

The EESC believes that the objective set out in the communication could fail if the managing bodies are not provided with sufficient and appropriate training in digital skills. If the aim is to apply the social security coordination rules through the digitalisation gateway, the staff assigned to each entity should be provided not only with the necessary training in the various procedures and formalities, but also with the corresponding digital skills training to enable them to offer a more efficient service.

4.15.

The EESC believes that the communication lacks due economic transparency because the Commission should have included in its Communication information on the real costs of measures taken to digitalise social security coordination, in particular the EESSI.

4.16.

The EESC believes that if the people covered can access up-to-date information with a national digital identity, it is quicker and easier for them to use their electronic certificate to connect to the administration. In this way, people covered can provide foreign authorities with the required social security or health information in real time. Member States should only have one link for data subjects to connect with their national digital identity. The EESC believes that the Commission should explore this system.

4.17.

The EESC believes that it is essential for the Members States to be involved and take action if the objective of digitalisation in social security coordination is to be achieved. The EESC proposes a permanent exchange of best practices on digitalising coordination of social security systems. In order to encourage and promote this, the EESC suggests that the European Commission and the European Labour Authority organise a conference in which Member States’ governments and civil society participate. The EESC, together with social partners and other civil society organisations at European level, will contribute to the conference and to the process as a whole.

Brussels, 14 February 2024.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Oliver RÖPKE


(1)  Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the coordination of social security systems (OJ L 166, 30.4.2004, p. 1).

(2)  Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46/EC (General Data Protection Regulation) (OJ L 119, 4.5.2016, p. 1).

(3)  https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/priorities-2019-2024/europe-fit-digital-age/europes-digital-decade-digital-targets-2030_en.

(4)  https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/ddn-20220330-1.

(5)  Regulation (EC) No 987/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 September 2009 laying down the procedure for implementing Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 on the coordination of social security systems (OJ L 284, 30.10.2009, p. 1).

(6)  Available at https://ec.europa.eu/social/social-security-directory/pai/select-country/language/en.

(7)  https://ec.europa.eu/digital-building-blocks/wikis/display/DIGITAL/Once+Only+Technical+System.

(8)  https://commission.europa.eu/news/once-only-principle-system-breakthrough-eus-digital-single-market-2020-11-05_en.


ELI: http://data.europa.eu/eli/C/2024/2486/oj

ISSN 1977-091X (electronic edition)


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