During its six-month EU presidency, Belgium will seek to enforce the so-called 'social clause' of the Lisbon Treaty, ensuring that policymakers in Brussels and national capitals keep a close eye on the social impact of all new legislation, a meeting of EU social ministers heard last Friday (9 July).
Following a meeting with her European peers, Belgian Employment Minister Joëlle Milquet said the presidency would strive to guarantee "adequate social protection" in the key EU policies which emerge during its six-month (July-December 2010) mandate.
To achieve this, she noted that the main tools at Belgium's disposal are the "social clause" of the Lisbon Treaty (see 'Background') and Guideline 10 of the Europe 2020 strategy, which aims to promote social inclusion and combat poverty.
Milquet highlighted a number of important initiatives expected this autumn which Belgium will seek to suffuse with strong social obligations. In particular, upcoming EU flagship initiatives – such as 'New skills for new jobs' and 'Youth on the move' – will serve this purpose, she claimed.
Avoid a social crisis, says Andor
EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner László Andor told the ministers that Belgium has a "great opportunity" to strengthen the social dimension of EU policymaking, given that social issues have achieved such prominence in this "critical period" in EU economic history.
However, he conceded that it would not be easy for the Belgians, given that the proliferation of tough austerity budgets in EU member states will likely lead to severe cuts in public – and particularly social – spending.
"We have to see what the capacity of various social groups is to bear the burden of fiscal consolidation," Andor said.
First Belgian test approaching fast, say social NGOs
Social stakeholders have consistently hailed the Lisbon "social clause" as an important innovation in EU policymaking, but it remains to be seen how its lofty promise can be measured in practice.
Conny Reuter, president of the Social Platform of European NGOs, told EURACTIV that a first test is fast approaching for the Belgians. The first "moment of truth," he argued, will be the drive to reduce poverty in EU member states, a key priority of the 2020 strategy.
After a divisive struggle, EU member states ground out an agreement on poverty reduction targets in June 2010 (EURACTIV 08/06/10), but it will fall to the Belgian Presidency to examine the nitty-gritty details of how this target will work in practice.
If the Belgian Presidency, in cooperation with the European Commission, is genuine about social credibility, it will exert pressure on all EU member states to put in place systems that measure poverty in a genuine, comprehensive way, Reuter claimed.
The risk is that some EU countries will deliberately choose one of the three poverty indicators to construct a disingenuous measuring tool, he said, noting that Germany, in particular, has been pushing in this direction.
For now, however, Reuter is prepared to give the Belgians the benefit of the doubt. "We very much welcome the strongly social orientation of the presidency," he said, adding that it was "much stronger" than previous presidencies.