Špidla: ‘Social innovation’ needed to restart economy

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Squeezed by the economic crisis, Europe’s labour markets can find new dynamism through social innovation, said Vladimir Špidla, EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities, in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.

“There can’t be any technological innovation without social innovation,” said Špidla, stressing that human capital is the most important resource for facing up to generational changes. 

All economic activities should focus on human capital development, the employment commissioner said: life-long learning, non-discrimination, structural changes and cross-border social dialogue all have to be priorities. 

New job security needs to be built

According to the Czech commissioner, modern societies are in constant transformation and the old working methods cannot tackle today’s problems. The current economic crisis will therefore permanently change the way Europeans go about doing business. 

This is why the EU developed the concept of flexicurity, Špidla explained, noting that the concept will not lose credibility amid mounting public debt and the possible inability of governments to offer more substantial support and economic security to those without jobs. 

“For the first time ever, we have put flexibility and security on the same level,” he said. “But now that flexibility is set, we now need to build a new security.”

The employment commissioner argues that without flexibility it would be harder for those without a job to find their way back into the labour market. An active policy to retrain and prepare the unemployed to access new jobs can offer them a real chance to not just find any position, but rather quality employment opportunities. 

Lisbon Strategy II must solve governance problem 

Refuting claims that the Lisbon Strategy, the EU’s overarching strategy for growth and jobs, has been a failure (EURACTIV 03/06/09), Špidla defended the advances made by the Commission in recent years and noted the concept of the “balanced triangle – economic growth, social cohesion, environmental sustainability – should not be abandoned as there is no better concept”.

“The Lisbon Strategy is not a total success, but it is not a failure,” he argued, saying other countries – like China and Japan – are looking at it as a model to be copied. Without the crisis, Špidla stressed, we would have reached the Lisbon objectives. 

The average rate of women in the workforce before the crisis was 59%, just below the 60% target. The same can be said for the average rate of older people, said Špidla. 

But despite some advances, Špidla accepted progress had been hampered by the lack of proper and efficient governance. 

The strategy, explains the commissioner, is split into two strands – communitarian and intergovernmental governance. “The open method of coordination has brought some developments, but generally governance has not been effective,” he noted, arguing for more precise indicators to assess progress on agreed targets. 

Towards a low-carbon economy: Aiming high on human capital 

As the EU revises the Lisbon Strategy, the employment and social affairs commissioner said social inclusion must take a higher profile. “We have to make sure that all changes are socially acceptable,” noted Špidla, for whom the post-2010 Lisbon Strategy should ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is matched with a socially viable plan. 

It is unavoidable, argues the commissioner, that in creating 4.5 million new ‘green’ jobs, a similar number will be destroyed. 

Given that in his eyes the transition may take up to ten years, he says “we need to guarantee an acceptable and solid environment for those losing their jobs,” arguing that social protection and competitiveness go hand in hand to avert social unrest. 

Move away from old schemes like early-retirement 

According to the commissioner, we need to move away from old thinking that early retirement schemes can alleviate fiscal pressure and create new jobs.

Those member states that opt for early retirement schemes also have high unemployment, explains Špidla. In parallel, those who maintain low numbers of young pensioners have more workers active in the labour market. 

“Work is a dynamic phenomenon,” underlined the Czech commissioner. “It is not a cake that can be cut in slices, but rather a cuisine which makes a bigger cake. As such, an increase in the labour force can generate an increase of labour capacity,” he pointed out. 

To emerge from the current crisis, the commissioner argues there is a need to make the European Union a better integrated labour market, facilitated by the portability of pensions and health insurance. 

People change jobs more frequently than in the past, and with initiatives such as the 2006 European Year for Workers’ Mobility, the EU encouraged them to do so, because mobility benefits economic growth, competitiveness and job creation, he said. 

However, when people move across borders, they often lose pension rights, said Špidla. Indeed, some occupational pension schemes impose waiting periods, others impose vesting periods, and not all plans allow the transfer of rights to other schemes within the same country or between EU member states. 

EU Blue Card will attract talents without leading to brain drain 

It is no secret that the path to growth can be regained if more creative and innovative skilled workers enter the European labour market, but critics have often said the EU blue card plan is not ambitious enough and will be marred by accusations of migrants stealing jobs for Europeans. 

“I believe the EU Blue Card will work, but we will need at least another five years” to see the first tangible results, said Špidla. The idea was to make Europe attractive for skilled workers without provoking a brain drain in developing countries, triggering a cycle of win-win circular migration, he argued, stressing that the real aim was to control the migratory flux.

Vladimir Špidla was speaking to EURACTIV’s Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.

To read the full interview in French, please click here.

Commissioner Vladimir Špidla has held the employment, social affairs and equal opportunities portfolio since his appointment to the EU executive in 2004. It remains unclear if he will return for a renewed mandate in the next term. 

He has previously served as prime minister, labour and social affairs minister and chairman of the Social Democratic Party of his native Czech Republic. 

Meanwhile, with the status of the Lisbon Treaty still in the balance pending the signature of Czech President Václav Klaus, it is still not known whether the next EU executive will be appointed on the basis of the Lisbon Treaty or the current Nice Treaty.

Under Špidla's watch, the European Commission launched a renewed Social Agenda in July 2008 (EURACTIV 02/07/08), one of the pillars of the overarching Lisbon strategy for Growth and Jobs (see EURACTIV Linksdossier

Špidla's legacy rests also on the adoption in 2007 of guiding principles relating to flexicurity, intended to inspire national labour market reforms (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). The European Year of Mobility in 2006 is also seen as one of his achievements, which was followed by a Jobs and Mobility Action Plan

The issuing of a European health insurance card is a concrete example of how mobility can be facilitated. Restructuring and employment has been a leitmotiv of  Špidla's mandate. 

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