Harmonise EU labour laws, say citizens

A citizens’ forum in Berlin last week – the last of its kind to be held in 2009 – recommended that the European Union harmonise labour laws for all its citizens. EURACTIV Germany contributed to this article.

70 regional interest groups from Germany, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Austria were represented at the conference, which debated the question of employment conditions and labour in the enlarged 27-member EU. 

A variety of topics were raised, including how to reduce disparities in working conditions throughout Europe, how to realise gender equality (equal pay for equal work) and whether the EU needs a common and harmonised labour code. 

On the subject of the gender pay gap, it was emphasised that EU law should lead the way in removing the remaining disparities. Delegates noted that although equal pay is already enshrined in the treaties, there are still significant gaps today, and regional aspects play an important role in preserving these inequalities. 

For example, in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic, the pay gap is over 23%, while in Poland, due to the structure of the labour and financial markets in that country, the corresponding figure is a mere 7%. Moreover, in Poland, 36% of all businesses are led by women, particularly SMEs, which constitute over 60% of Polish GDP. 

Harmonise labour laws, conference recommends 

The debate occasionally featured contrasting viewpoints. For example, German Green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter argued that high-level labour rights and a “strong improvement of the EU labour code” are needed at European level, but achieving this goal is extremely difficult due to the veto power of member states. 

By contrast, Vanda Pecjak, vice-president of the Slovenian Employers’ Association, took the approach that while a more “strong-handed” European Commission would be important in ensuring that all member states accept the need for minimum standards, “concrete labour market rules should remain the responsibility of each EU member state”. 

The recommendations agreed on at the end of the conference concluded that “the EU should create the same working conditions and rules for all EU citizens based on a harmonised Labour Code, harmonising working conditions for employees and obligations for employers”. 

Reflecting on the consultations, which took place throughout 2009, Stefan Schäfers, European programme advisor at the King Baudouin Foundation, said their overall goal is to ensure that "in the future, Europeans are much more involved in decision-making processes at European level than has been the case in recent years". 

"The gap between citizens and the EU is well known," he argued, adding that "we need to find ways to bring the 'original voice' of the citizens into the Union's political processes". 

"This project is complementary to the traditional stakeholder participation processes on the European level. It is very important to make new voices heard in the EU," he concluded.

He went on to note that by "adding new elements such as an online debate involving the general public and regional conferences with stakeholders from all member states, the European citizens' consultation succeeded in achieving substantial attention from both policymakers and the media". 

German Green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter, vice-chairwoman of the European Parliament's employment and social affairs committee, argued that "we want to have equal labour rights - but not on a low level. We want them on a high level". 

While she advocated for a "strong improvement of the EU labour code, including the rights of social partners," she cautioned that there are currently "great difficulties" in achieving this goal, primarily due to the veto power of member states – highlighting the failure to reach a deal on the controversial working time as an example. Nonetheless, she highlighted "basic minimum standards for labour rights" as an achievable target for the coming years. 

Marie Bilkovachief advisor to the Czech Deputy Minister of Finance, claimed that harmonised EU employment rules, while desirable, would not happen overnight by "means of one resolution or one act". 

"Amending labour rights and working conditions is tightly linked to other systems, such as fiscal policy, health insurance, pensions and many other aspects," she said, adding that "if EU member states don't find an agreement to harmonise these systems, we can't expect to harmonise the working conditions". 

Harmonised labour rights will emerge by way of evolution as opposed to policy decisions, she concluded. 

Bernd Hüttemann, secretary-general of European Movement Germany, claimed that the lack of EU focus on social policy had led to some of its member organisations being against Lisbon Treaty. For example, he noted, the German trade union Verdi, which is one of the biggest trade unions in the world, was against the treaty because it lacked a social dimension. 

Vanda Pecjak, vice-president of the Slovenian Employers’ Association, argued that while "concrete labour market rules should remain the responsibility of each EU member state," a "strong-handed" European Commission should ensure that all member states accept the need for minimum standards. 

Dirk Bergrath from the German Metalworkers' Union argued that "the EU should be more than a kind of 'super free trade area'". 

He added that "people do want equal labour standards," and the EU should issue clear signals that "fundamental social rights are superior to the other freedoms, especially the mobility of goods and capital". 

"The next step is to implement minimum standards on the European Level," he concluded. 

The European Citizens' Consultations are a forum for people across the EU to provide an input into future European policymaking. The aim is to develop more structured long-term involvement of citizens in the EU decision-making process. 

The consultations involved over 1,500 randomly selected European citizens who took part in national debates in the 27 member states. Of these, 150 citizens were in May 2009 invited to Brussels to finalise a set of fifteen recommendations which were presented to EU leaders (EURACTIV 12/05/09). 

The conference in Berlin was the last of these so-called 'regional conferences,' which brought together experts, stakeholders, representatives of the European institutions and newly-elected MEPs with different social and professional backgrounds to share their ideas. 

The citizens' consultation was one of a number of similar 'listening to citizens' exercises that the European Commission has financed as part of its 'Plan D' for communication (for more on Plan D see EURACTIV's interview with EU communications commissioner for the 2004-2009 period, Margot Wallström). 

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