Commission pushing for ‘New Social Agenda’

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The Commission yesterday revealed plans to update the current social agenda and better integrate it into the EU’s overall policy framework. The main focus lies in addressing cross-border health care, improving workers’ rights and promoting better education systems.

The new package is set to contain several pieces of legislation, including a long-awaited proposal on patients’ cross-border healthcare rights as well as proposals on anti-discrimination, educational issues and workers’ rights, Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Špidla announced at a conference in Brussels on 6-7 May.

Cross-border healthcare 

The healthcare proposal, meant to improve conditions for patients looking for treatment in other member states, has been delayed since December. It aims to facilitate the mobility of patients and professionals by improving the cross-border interoperability of electronic health records. 

European Works Council

The Commission also proposed revised legislation on the European Works Council as part of the package. The current law, which dates from 1994, gives workers the right to consultation and information on company decisions, but trade unions have been calling for it to be revised due to its poor implementation by companies. 

Commissioner Špidla criticised the social partners for responding too slowly to the Commission’s proposals and not having properly used the public consultation, which ended in April, to come up with their own initiatives. 

Although Špidla still prefers a common approach with the social NGOs, he said the Commission would go ahead with a directive alone if the partners were not willing to cooperate. 

Anti-discrimination

The Commission initiative also addresses anti-discrimination issues, looking for ways to tackle gender equality by closing pay gaps and facilitating better conciliation between private and professional life. Women’s salaries still lag 15% behind those of men, Špidla said. 

Modernising education systems

Finally, the Commission said it is also planning to come forward with initiatives on skills and supporting the member states in their efforts to modernise their education systems to further reduce unemployment rates, especially among young people. These proposals are also set to include new ideas on multilingualism, seeing as languages are an “important part of the skills set required in Europe”. 

Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the EU executive had come out with new initiatives because "the social reality check has shown that some of these approaches are no longer attuned to modern reality” and therefore a "broader, more integrated approach" is needed. 

Clear priorities are addressing the problems of the young and solving problems such as high youth unemployment, too great a number of early school leavers, and relative job insecurity and wage inequality, he added. 

Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Špidla  said the social model remained valid but needed to be refreshed to "better adapt it to the citizens and not the other way round". Although in favour of further reforms, Spidla said these must not come "at any price" and rather always have to be "in line with European values". 

Slovenian State Secretary for Labour and Social Affairs Romana Tomc supported the Commission's proposals, saying a new social agenda could contribute to a "more tailor-made Europe". However, the focus should be on implementing existing legislation before coming up with new initiatives, Tomc added. 

Swedish Socialist MEP  and chair of the Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee Jan Andersson agreed that a new social agenda is needed to create an "equal playing field" for workers across Europe. He also called for "equal payment for equal work" and urged all processes to be linked to sustainability, bearing in mind the impact of today's legislation on future generations. 

John Monks,  the secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) also welcomed the Commission's initiative as a first step in the right direction. However, further steps need to be taken regarding better protection of workers' rights, in particular for temporary agency workers, Monks said. 

"Social values may not be undermined by the free market," he stressed. 

Social Platform President Conny Reuter adapted a statement by former US President Bill Clinton to state the importance of a balanced social policy, saying "it's the social Europe, stupid!" He criticised the Commission for not being ambitious enough on some policies, particularly the issue of gender equality. 

Philippe de Buck, the general secretary of European employers' federation BusinessEurope, welcomed the Commission's shift towards a more integrated approach but insisted that all social principles should be dependent on the principles of the internal market. 

He also spoke in favour of the flexicurity approach, saying it offered social employment polices without neglecting productivity. 

The Commission and the upcoming French EU Presidency have both declared social policy a priority in 2008. 

Following a consultation with European social partners, in 2007 the Commission adopted a 'Communication on Opportunities, Access and Solidarity,' which laid the foundations of the new social agenda to be presented this June, just before France takes over the EU Presidency. 

The Social Agenda forms part of the EU's Lisbon Strategy on Growth and Jobs, which aims to make the EU the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010. 

At this year's Spring Council in March, EU leaders endorsed the priorities for the last three years of the Lisbon Agenda, which social NGOs blasted for the "social emptiness" (EURACTIV 18/03/08). 

By presenting the package either at the end of June or beginning of July, the Commission might still get it approved by Parliament before its summer break, after which MEPs will start campaigning for their re-election in June 2009. 

The initiative might also be considered in light of Barroso's hopes of securing a second term as Commission President, which depends on the approval of the member states and the European Parliament. 

  • June 2008: Commission to present new 'Social Agenda for Opportunity, Access and Solidarity'. 
  • 1 July 2008: France takes over EU Presidency. 
  • July 2008: Parliament to vote on the new package. 

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