High hopes as Commission unveils social agenda overhaul

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The EU’s renewed social agenda, due to be presented today (2 July), will feature proposals on strengthening the fight against discrimination and improving workers’ rights and cross-border healthcare. It is one of the Commission’s priority projects before the end of its tenure, seen by some as its “last chance” to deliver concrete results on improving the lives of EU citizens.

A key part of the EU executive’s new proposals will be a directive on improving protection against discrimination, particularly on grounds of age, sexual orientation and belief, but it remains to be seen whether those will go beyond the workplace as demanded by MEPs and social partners. 

Following several U-turns on the anti-discrimination law in recent months, the Commission recently indicated that it would favour comprehensive legislation (EURACTIV 19/06/08). A Framework Directive against all forms of discrimination was announced by Commission President José Manuel Barroso as early as 2004, but thus far existing legislation only covers mistreatment on the grounds of gender and for employment issues. 

Today’s package will also contain a long-awaited Directive on patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare as well as a Green Paper on education and migration and a Communication on schools in the 21st century.  

The President of the European Socialists, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, described the initiative as “the Commission’s last chance to show that Europe is more than a market, to show that it cares about the everyday concerns of European citizens”. He also criticised France, which assumed the six-month rotating EU Presidency yesterday, for not making social policy a “top priority’, despite its repeated pledges to to use 2008 “to restart social Europe”.

Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialist faction in the European Parliament, argued along the same lines, urging President Sarkozy to “commit himself to the social Europe”. 

Speaking to parliamentarians last week, French Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand had stressed the need to make Europe “more concrete, protective and closer to citizens”. 

“Is there any better area than the social area for moving forward?,” he asked. 

AGE, an association representing the interests of older people in Europe, expressed the hope that the new package would ban discrimination on the basis of age, in line with the finding of the latest Eurobarometer, reporting 42% of Europeans being particularly concerned about this form of mistreatment. 

The Commission also plans to bring forward a revised directive on the European Works Council (EWC), under discussion since 2004, in order to address national governments’ failure to transpose the 1994 directive. It wants in particular to bring legal certainty to companies’ obligations, promote cross-border dialogue and strengthen the position of the EWC compared to national-level works councils. 

The 1994 directive applies to all companies with 1,000 or more workers, and at least 150 employees in each of two or more EU member states. However, twelve years after the directive’s entry into force, only about a third of companies which are legally obliged to set up an EWC have done so. In particular, medium-sized companies of up to 5,000 workers have failed to do so. 

Commenting on a draft of the package, BusinessEurope, which represents most transnational entreprises in Europe, expressed its concern that the Commission is planning to impose new burdens “of lengthy and uncertain consultation” on businesses. BusinessEurope had long resisted talks with social partners on revising the current text before finally giving in and deciding to co-operate after the Commission took the intitiative. 

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