Friday's summit in the port city of Gothenburg aims to restore faith in the post-war vision of a united Europe by promoting fair jobs, growth and a social safety net after years of crisis-driven economic austerity.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said far-right gains in Austrian and German elections, which followed the shock of Britain's vote to leave the European Union, showed action was necessary.
“Rightwing extremists gaining power? Yes of course I'm worried because I know it's a poison for society,” Löfven, the summit's co-organizer, told AFP in an interview in Brussels last month.
“I'm convinced that a sustainable European Union needs a strong social dimension because this is all about people.”
The so-called “social summit” is the first of its kind since one in Luxembourg in 1997.
It aims to show that the EU is not just a huge market of 500 million people, but a force that can meet the concerns of working people by reducing inequality, boosting welfare and improve people's work-life balance in an era of ever increasing global competition.
The meeting is also the first in an ambitious timeline of summits proposed by EU President Donald Tusk over the next two years to reboot the bloc after Brexit and other setbacks.
Former Polish premier Tusk unveiled the schedule of talks just weeks after calls for deep EU reform by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker.
Most of the EU's 28 national leaders are expected to attend, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, even though her country, which is due to leave the bloc in 2019, has long resisted greater government involvement in the job market.
May could take the chance to have meetings on the sidelines with other leaders about the deadlocked Brexit negotiations, with a December deadline looming for a deal to move on to trade talks.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the bloc's economic and political dynamo, will skip the summit to lead talks for a new governing coalition, though her aides said she fully supports the meeting's goals.
These points will be enshrined in a European Pillar of Social Rights which Juncker, European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani and Estonian Prime Minister Juria Ratas – whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency – are due to sign on Friday.
Extremism and populism
But there are, as ever, splits within the EU over how best to drive economic growth.
Löfven, Juncker and other EU leaders have called for free trade deals with Latin America and other parts of the world despite calls by Macron to moderate their zeal.
Macron argues that EU governments no longer have the popular support to negotiate trade deals as many Europeans fear they will lead only to more job losses as well as weaker environmental and health standards.
Löfven, who has headed a fragile Social Democrat coalition since 2014, said trade deals are needed for economic growth but that wealth must be distributed in a “fairer way than we do today”.
“If gaps are widening too much, especially if people at the bottom of the society feel that they are not part of this, well that breeds extremism and populism,” Löfven said.
Leaders are also due to discuss ways to make it easier for young Europeans to move for education and jobs, such as the Erasmus programme, which has allowed five million Europeans to study around the bloc since it was launched 30 years ago.
“Education and culture are the source of millions of jobs and growth in our Member States and tools to reduce inequalities,” Tusk wrote in an invitation letter.
Article by AFP's Lachlan Carmichael