By refusing to set a national target for employment, the UK government has set itself on a collision course with the European Commission, and is threatening to undermine the 'Europe 2020' strategy for growth that was agreed last summer by the leaders of all 27 member states.
"Only 24 member states have so far set national employment targets in the draft national reform programmes and this is clearly a problem," said László Andor, the EU commissioner responsible for employment, social policy and inclusion.
Speaking to journalists on Monday (7 March), Andor identified the three countries that have so far failed to set targets as Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
In the case of Ireland, the commissioner noted that the delay was due to "the impact of the recent financial turmoil" and the fact that a new government was still in the process of being established following a 25 February election.
Turning to the Netherlands, Andor said that there had been issues to resolve regarding methodological aspects, but that these had been solved. He said he was therefore "very confident" that a national target would be set "in a couple of weeks".
UK: 'A question of compatibility'
However, when it comes to the United Kingdom, the reasons appear more difficult to overcome. According to Andor, "there is a question of compatibility or continuity with previous targets".
At the European Council summit in June 2010, EU leaders including new UK Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that member states should "rapidly finalise their national targets […] according to their national decision-making procedures".
EURACTIV understands that the British believe the explicit reference to "national decision-making procedures" means that member states are not obliged to set numerical targets.
The UK government used similar arguments last month to explain why it is also refusing to fix national targets that are compatible with the education objectives laid down in the 2020 strategy.
UK Employment Minister Chris Grayling recently spoke out against what he calls "one-size-fits-all programmes". He is advocating a more decentralised approach towards helping the unemployed, based on financial incentives rather than numerical targets.
It is not yet clear whether or not the European Commission has given up on trying to persuade the British to change their attitude towards national targets under the 'Europe 2020' umbrella.
Referring to all the member states that have not yet set their national targets, Andor said: "We have various levels of optimism in terms of the speed we understand that the figures will come in."
The commissioner was presenting the outcomes of an EU Council meeting in Brussels, attended by the ministers responsible for employment and social policy in the member states.
'Falling short' of employment target
At their meeting, the ministers discussed what measures their national governments are taking to tackle unemployment, especially among young people (under 25 years of age) and older workers (over 55) who are more likely to find themselves without work.
The member states are currently drafting their national reform programmes (NRPs), which set out in detail how they are intending to work towards achieving the targets agreed last year at EU level.
As regards employment, EU leaders have made a clear political commitment to raise the employment rate for both women and men (aged between 20 and 65 years) from around 69% to 75% by the end of the current decade.
However, the commissioner responsible for coordinating efforts in this area is now warning that the target will not be reached without a significant increase in the level of ambition being shown by national governments.
"The national employment rate targets announced so far by the member states indicate that the EU as a whole will unfortunately fall short of our overall 75% headline target unless there are some more commitments made by the member states in the coming period," said Andor.
Member states: 'Not sufficiently ambitious'
Alongside employment, the 'Europe 2020' strategy also includes the goal of promoting social inclusion, with – for the first time at EU level – a clear numerical target to reduce the number of people at risk of poverty and exclusion by 20 million.
But here the Commission is also dissatisfied, with four member states not yet having set national targets on how they are going to reduce the number of people at risk of poverty and exclusion, who on average, represent 17% of the EU population.
Andor named Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and "to some extent" the UK as countries that have not yet fixed targets for how many people would be lifted out of poverty.
The leaders of both the political parties in the current British government have publicly endorsed the goal of eradicating child poverty, so that no children are living in poor households, by 2020.
While the Commission does not deny that eradicating child poverty would almost certainly lead to a significant reduction in overall poverty, it has not yet found a way of quantifying this impact in a way that can be compared to the national targets of other member states.
"How to interpret child poverty in the context of overall poverty in society appears to be a methodological question and it has not yet been fully overcome," said Andor.
The Commission is also concerned that the national targets that have been put forward by 23 member states don't come close enough to reaching the 20 million target at EU level.
"I believe it's not sufficiently ambitious because speaking about 20 million people means only 4% of the EU population, and we have to be able to demonstrate a capacity to change the living conditions of these people," insisted Andor.
Pushing governments to go further
The commissioner admits that he is putting pressure on member states to revise their national action programmes (NRPs) and amend their targets on employment and poverty.
"We are not simply waiting for the remaining ones to send their figures," said Andor. "We are also in a discussion with all others in order to make some of them more ambitious."
"If we see a major gap between the actual undertaking and what the Commission believes would be more reasonable, we stay in a dialogue with the member state until these documents get finalised."
The Commission is expected to adopt specific policy recommendations for each EU member state in the second half of 2011. This will happen only after national targets are agreed and draft national reform programmes are submitted – which is likely to happen in April.