Citing the ongoing recession, EU employers' group BusinessEurope has called on the European Union to withdraw a directive aimed at fighting discrimination, causing outcry among social NGOs.
Philippe De Buck, director-general of BusinessEurope, called on EU ministers meeting on Thursday to ensure that social legislation does not put companies under further strain.
The demands were spelt out in a letter to the Czech minister for industry and trade, Vladimir Tošovský, as he prepares to chair a two-day meeting of the 27 ministers in charge of competitiveness and research policy in the EU’s member states.
Germany and Britain are expected to be most reluctant to back the plan when ministers discuss the Commission's proposal, EU officials said.
"Today's crisis does not allow for a business-as-usual attitude to regulatory policy," Mr De Buck wrote in the letter. "New legislative proposals that risk creating an extra burden on companies should be avoided," he said.
"We call for the anti-discrimination directive to be withdrawn and for ideas about introducing legislation on EU collective redress to be dropped."
Small businesses in particular have questioned the practicality of the proposal, saying it was open to legal interpretations in the case of disabled persons. "Will all restaurants now have to have a wheelchair ramp? Will there be a differentiation between a small pub and a big restaurant with seating for 200?," asked Anja Weisgerber MEP, vice-president of the SME circle for the centre-right EPP-ED group in the European Parliament.
The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, will present a progress report on the disability aspect of the discussions at a meeting of employment ministers on 8 June. The report will serve as a basis for discussing the directive as a whole, said Radek Honzák, a spokesman for the Czech Presidency.
The calls caused outcry among European social NGOs. Conny Reuter, president of the Social Platform, said the European Parliament had repeatedly called for such proposals. 89% of respondents to a Commission consultation on the issue were in favour of the anti-discrimination plans, he stressed.
"It's odd that BusinessEurope now wants the anti-discrimination directive to be scrapped because of the extra burden on companies," he told EurActiv. "Seven out of 10 European businesses have said there would be no financial impact on them if the laws were passed," he pointed out, citing the results of a consultation that the Commission had carried out before presenting the plans.
Commission defends proposal
Katharina Von Schnurbein, the Commission's spokesperson on social affairs, defended the proposal, saying the claims about costs had been exaggerated by business organisations.
German business group BDI had evaluated the implementation costs of the last anti-discrimination directive, adopted in 2000, at 1.73 billion euros, she said. But the figures had later been contradicted by the German anti-discrimination office, which estimated the implementation costs at only 26 million euros.
"It is clear that anti-discrimination policies cost something," Von Schnurbein told EurActiv, "but they also protect honourable people".
Last autumn, BusinessEurope stressed that the draft directive "does not respect the subsidiary and proportionality principles," according to which legislation at EU level should only be considered as a last resort when action by national authorities is insufficient.
"The need for such additional legislation in the field of discrimination has not been evidenced by the European Commission, and the EU's policy efforts must be geared towards awareness raising activities and the exchange of good practices at European level," wrote the confederation of European business in a November 2008 position paper.
But Von Schnurbein rejected the claims, saying the Commission's proposal is based on Article 13 of the EC Treaty.
Dutch Green MEP Kathalijne Buitenweg, who was rapporteur on anti-discrimination law when it was debated by the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, expressed dismay at the suggestion that anti-discrimination legislation be shelved.
She said she was “puzzled” to hear the business community had raised the issue, particularly as the directive currently under consideration does not have direct impact on the labour market.
“What we’re talking about here is introducing measures to ensure access to premises for people with physical disability or protecting the rights of a homosexual couple who want to rent a home. People often claim that it will cost money to implement equality rules but if you look at the countries where it has already been done it’s really not that expensive to make small changes,” she said.
Buitenweg added that even if there were costs involved in ending discrimination it would be difficult to imagine arguments in favour of preserving inequality. “What if it would cost money? Are we going to say we should keep discriminating? Ending discrimination is in the wider interest of society,” she said.
- 8-9 June: Meeting of EU ministers in charge of employment, social, health and consumer affairs (EPSCO Council). Czech Presidency to present progress report on the disability aspects of the draft anti-discrimination directive.