The so-called "jobs summit," originally scheduled for 7 May with the full participation of all EU leaders, has been downgraded to a lower-level "troika meeting" of the current Czech and future Swedish and Spanish EU Presidencies, it emerged yesterday (24 March).
Employment ministers from 27-member bloc may also be invited, while stakeholders from the world of business, trade unions and civil society will be asked to participate too.
Sources close to the matter told EurActiv that this about-turn was triggered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at last week's spring summit in Brussels, and "was completely unexpected on all sides".
"Basically," the source said, "Sarkozy walked out to have a coffee during the summit meeting and said that there shouldn't be a full European summit on this as there have been enough summits this year". It appears likely that Sarkozy was reacting to last week's strikes in France (EurActiv 20/03/09) and was worried that the EU "would not be able to deliver on the level of ambition" set out by such a summit, increasing the risk of social unrest across Europe.
The French president's whim quickly found support, however: according to the source, German leaders "had never been very keen" on the jobs summit, and they and Belgium quickly rode in behind Sarkozy. As a result, the beleaguered Czech government was forced to downgrade its plans.
Dissapointment in Brussels
The move has sparked widespread disenchantment in Brussels. European Commission sources told EurActiv of the disappointment and annoyance felt by the EU executive at the about-turn. "We thought there was enough substance to justify a full meeting with heads of state, also because this would give useful visibility to the biggest current issue [unemployment] preoccupying European citizens," they said.
"There is a certain irony here: the Commission is constantly being accused of having a neoliberal agenda and not doing enough on social issues, and here you have a meeting that was practical and hardly dangerous – it was designed to identify means of tackling unemployment – and these same countries that have attacked the Commission for 20 years are now undermining this summit."
Leading MEPs, too, expressed their dismay. Swedish Socialist MEP Jan Andersson, chairman of the European Parliament's employment committee, told EurActiv that he was "very critical of this development". "The big question this year in the EU is increasing unemployment, and for European leaders to decide that this is not an EU question, that this is something we need to address at member state level, is madness."
"As we face the biggest unemployment crisis in decades, they are abandoning their responsibility," Andersson added. "This is not leadership."
Liberal MEP Elizabeth Lynne (ALDE, UK) told EurActiv she was "disappointed that this summit has been downgraded at a time when millions of people across the European Union are losing their jobs. If nothing else this could have been used as a forum to exchange best practice in this area, something that is in my mind desperately required at EU level."