Barroso’s social pledge fails to convince

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Reappointed European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s pledge to reinvigorate the EU’s social agenda has received a mixed reception among stakeholders, with some tentatively hopeful and others fearing “business as usual”.

Barroso, who this week made a number of statements further outlining the social priorities of his second term, claimed that his ambition is to balance sustainable growth and social cohesion, “because in a social economy like ours, growth and social protection must go hand-in-hand”. 

The president’s commitments to bolster ‘Social Europe’ during his September reappointment campaign were generally welcomed by experts, though many considered them too vague to instill genuine confidence. 

Speaking on Monday (28 September) at a meeting of the Spring Alliance, the EU’s largest civil society coalition, Barroso began to outline a more detailed strategy for his second-term social priorities. 

To begin with, he rebutted claims that his Commission only paid lip service to the social agenda, arguing that “very important mechanisms of solidarity” currently exist. 

However, he acknowledged that “in the current set of circumstances, more should be done,” but in order for that to happen, “I need the support of the member states”. 

Barroso to take on EU capitals? 

The question of the Commission’s social ambitions being limited by member-state vetoes was a recurring theme, and a moot point as Barroso set about promising social NGOs that he would do more second time around. 

Barroso effectively blamed national vetoes for blocking his social ambitions. “I think now with this crisis we should consider the question: should we not now have something at the EU level for the poorest? My position is ‘yes’. So far, the position of the Council has been ‘no’ – that is the reality,” he said. 

He also touched on the thorny subject of social targets, claiming that his Commission had recognised the need for these in its 2008 communication on reinforcing the open method of coordination. The trouble, said Barroso, is that member states disagree on how to implement such methods of social benchmarking at EU level. As a result, “unified targets on social policy” have never emerged. 

But Barroso claimed he would push with renewed vigour to bring this debate to the fore in European capitals. “Let’s try again and see if they are ready to accept,” he said. 

Opinions were divided as to whether these claims reflected a genuine conviction or mere lip service. Party of European Socialists (PES) President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, speaking to EURACTIV, scathingly dismissed Barroso’s arguments as “yet again blaming others for his own chronic lack of leadership. He has been passive during the crisis and now again refuses to table proposals to advance Social Europe in the interest of European people,” he said. 

The Spring Alliance, a strong advocate of “using progress measurement tools that go beyond GDP,” was prepared to give Barroso the benefit of the doubt. Roshan di Puppo, director of the Social Platform, which co-authored the Spring Alliance’s manifesto, told EURACTIV that if Barroso strengthens and gives greater public prominence to the open method of communication as the primary vehicle for cross-border co-ordination of EU social benchmarks, an EU scorecard for social measurements is a realistic option in the coming years. 

However, she called for a step-by-step approach, arguing that while the time may be ripe for such a scorecard, member states would draw the line at the creation of quantifiable targets based on these measurements. 

“What I took from Barroso’s statement is that we first need to push for the scoreboard, and then we can start to push the capitals. I think that’s the right approach,” she concluded, adding that should Barroso fail to act on his claims and revert to his belief in a strictly “trickle-down” approach to the social question, then the Spring Alliance is prepared to publish statistics proving that this method has failed. 

Following President Barroso's appearance at the Spring Alliance, leaders of its member organisations said the following: 

Conny Reuter, president of the Social Platform, said: "We appreciate that President Barroso committed to a Europe that puts people at the heart of the agenda. For us, this means abandoning the current strategy based on only competition and growth in favour of policies that effectively fight poverty and discrimination and develop the European Social Model – rather than undermine the EU's social protection systems and public services. We expect that President Barroso really will put people and planet first when drafting the future strategy of the EU and will propose concrete steps." 

Justin Kilcullen, president of CONCORD, the European NGO confederation for relief and development, stated: "Now is the time for a deep questioning of the current European model, a model which is founded on strong economic growth, uneven distribution of wealth and excessive exploitation of natural resources. We are also calling for the reform of global economic governance to give developing countries real participation in the vital decisions that impact on their future." 

Mikael Karlsson, president of the European Environmental Bureau  (EEB), said: "We call for concrete and bold action towards a sustainable agenda for the EU that ensures consumption and production patterns change, giving maximum benefit to people and the environment. Simply put: the new Commission must propose policies for doing more with less." 

Party of European Socialists (PESPresident Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, commenting on Barroso's claims that member states have stalled progress on EU social action, said: "Barroso is yet again blaming others for his own chronic lack of leadership. He has been passive during the crisis and now again refuses to table proposals to advance Social Europe in the interest of European people. I hope he does not need to be reminded that the Commission - and not the Council - is the only institution with the right to initiate legislation." 

The European Trade Union Confederation  (ETUC), said last month that it is still "far from clear" if Barroso's strategies are "a step in the right direction". "There is still a lack of any precise idea about what form a strengthening of the Posted Workers Directive would take. Is the president of the Commission recognising the case for equal pay for equal work for posted workers? It is disappointing that he has not made any move on the ETUC proposal for a Social Progress Protocol. These points must be pursued and clarified in the Parliament, and the ETUC will be taking them up with the president." 

Eurofound, the Dublin-based EU agency, argued that "comprehensive crisis packages – rather than isolated initiatives focusing on fostering growth in the labour market – are far more efficient ways of moving European economies out of recession". 

report by the agency claims that "avoiding unemployment is a far more efficient strategy for job protection in the in the medium-to-long term than is attempting to remedy it, through active or passive labour market policies. Unemployment can be minimised by, for example, supporting companies through providing better access to finance as well as strategic investment in research and development (R&D) and innovation". 

Eurofound adds that "social dialogue plays an essential role in ensuring fair and inclusive arrangements against the background of the recession, which challenges both workers and employers. Across Europe, the involvement of social partners in the development and implementation of recession measures differs with regard to the level and extent of their integration in policy design". 

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was reappointed for a second term last month (EURACTIV 16/09/09). 

As part of his reappointment campaign, Barroso launched a 41-page document entitled 'Political guidelines for the next Commission', which gave a broad outline of his ambitions for the next five years. 

Regarding social policy, Barroso stated his "conviction that the EU with its social market economy is the route to a better future for us," and added that "the social priority is much more important today than it was five years ago". 

The latter statement increased hopes among some EU stakeholders and social NGOs that Barroso II would promote a genuinely stronger social policy, though others argued that Barroso's action plan was little more than a list of good intentions and the Portuguese needed to be more precise in the solutions he was proposing. 

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