Mixed reaction to EU’s social package

The Commission’s long-awaited social package aimed at tackling discrimination and strengthening workers’ rights, which was unveiled yesterday (2 July), was warmly welcomed by MEPs but business federations and civil society groups were dismissive, saying it falls short.

Yesterday’s large-scale package, containing proposals in the areas of employment, education and health, comes three weeks after Irish citizens rejected the EU’s Reform Treaty and is seen as an attempt to reassure Europeans that Brussels cares about citizens’ needs and can act. 

Its most important elements are two directives on anti-discrimination and European Works Councils. 

Anti-discrimination 

According to a new Eurobarometer survey, 15% of Europeans say they have been discriminated against on the basis of gender, disability, ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief in the past year. 

The Commission aims to tackle this with a new directive that would close loopholes in existing legislation. Indeed, current laws only covers mistreatment on the grounds of gender and for employment issues while the new legislation would “combat discrimination based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation” beyond the workspace. 

“Yet discrimination on these grounds is clearly just as unacceptable outside the employment sphere as it is within it,” the Commission explains, saying the new directive will ensure that victims of all such forms of discrimination will have access to effective redress. 

In a bid to respect the diversity of European societies, however, issues relating to education, recognition of marital or family status, adoption, reproductive rights, as well as national rules governing churches and other religious organisations will not be affected by the Directive. 

What’s more, it will apply only to the commercial provision of goods and services. “It would be disproportionate to submit individuals acting purely privately to all the obligations of the draft Directive,” explains the Commission. 

European Works Council 

The other key proposal is a directive on strengthening the role of European Works Councils by addressing national governments’ failure to transpose the 1994 directive, which obliged companies with 1,000 or more workers and at least 150 employees in each of two or more EU member states to set up such councils. 

However, twelve years after the directive’s entry into force, only about a third of companies have done so, with medium-sized businesses of up to 5,000 workers lagging behind the most. 

The new directive aims to bring legal certainty to companies’ obligations, promote cross-border dialogue and strengthen the position of the EWCs compared to national-level works councils. 

Businesses, not recognising the need to overhaul the current directive, expressed their concern that the Commission was trying to impose new burdens “of lengthy and uncertain consultation” on businesses. 

Roma exlcusion

Among other issues, the Commision’s package also addresses the problem of Roma exclusion across Europe, presenting instruments that would feed into a European Roma Summit in Brussels on 16 September. 

"The right to equal treatment is fundamental, but millions of people in the EU continue to face discrimination in their everyday lives," noted Vladimir Spidla, EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities

Jan Marinus Wiersma, the vice president of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, and  Claudio Fava, Socialist coordinator in the Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, both welcomed the Commission's "clear commitment" to addressing the Roma issue, but now urged concrete action. 

"What needs to be done now is to translate the recommendations into policy proposals. The paper from the European Commission is a first step towards what we really need, a European Roma Strategy." 

The ALDE Group in the European Parliament expressed its satisfaction with the Works Council Directive as well with the anti-discrimination directive. 

Commenting on the latter, Bernard Lehideux, ALDE coordinator in the Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee, said the Commission eventually realised that "it is not for a judge to fix a framework but up to politicians to fulfill their responsibility". 

He considered transnational works councils to be "a vital instrument to back up a more social Europe," pledging to "keep a close eye on this text to make sure that employees are consulted and that the works councils have all the information and means necessary to answer any questions". 

Commenting on the anti-discrimination directive, the leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, Graham Watson, welcomed the proposal as "a sign that citizens' equality remains the EU's priority," calling it "a victory for equality and anti-discrimination". 

The Greens also lent support to the proposal to extend discrimination protection, describing it as "a step forward in the fight against discrimination in Europe," according to Dutch MEP Kathalijne Buitenweg. 

The business federation Eurochambres dismissed the package as "a confusing patchwork, randomly put together without any clear coherence and with questionable added value". 

"It is not clear what impact this package will have on European businesses. Let's take for example the Directive on Equal Treatment Beyond the Workplace. What does 'beyond the workplace' actually mean?," asked Arnaldo Abruzzini, the federation's secretary general. 

Commenting on yesterday's renewed agenda, John Monks, the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), said "a new impetus to Social Europe is welcome," but lamented that the package fell short of "winning the hearts and minds of the people of Europe and meeting their needs". Monks declared: "We are waiting for stronger and more ambitious initiatives." 

Commenting on the anti-discrimination directive, the European Disability Forum welcomed the wide scope of the document, but said the Commission had failed to protect disabled people. "The proposed directive is unclear and leaves room for interpretation" in areas such as education and insurance, said EDF President Yannis Vardakastanis, calling for "substantial changes in order to reach its objectives". 

The Commission and the French Presidency, which took the EU reigns on 1 July, have both declared social policy a priority in 2008. French Preisident Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly stressed the need to make Europe "more protective", contrary to the views of more liberal member states such as the UK. Although he did not list social policy among the core areas to be addressed over the next six months (which include energy and climate change, immigration, defence and a review of the EU's farm policy), he intends to deal with it. 

The package is based on a consultation with European social partners carried out in 2007 and aims to put the social dimension back on the EU's agenda, three years after the Lisbon Strategy was refocused on growth and jobs (see our Links Dossier on the Lisbon Strategy's relaunch). 

The initiative can also be seen in light of Commission President José Manuel Barroso's hopes of securing a second term, which depends on the approval of both the member states and the European Parliament. 

  • 2010: Measures could go into effect after approval by governments and the European Parliament.

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