Social NGOs call for values in EU decision making

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At a conference organised by the Social Platform, politicians, officials and NGO activists discussed the importance of a European social model to bringing the EU closer to its citizens. 

In her keynote speech, Tuula Haatainen, the Finnish minister of social affairs, observed that, as a result of more intense co-operation on such issues as the internal market and competitiveness, EU collaboration in social affairs has deepened during recent years. She added that the balance between Member States and the union in Social Policy had shifted to the union, causing some concern in a number of countries. 

Haatainen said the question was whether member states could keep their current institutional structures and maintain all their operations in social policy. She indicated how closely this was linked to the question of integration's benefits. She argued in favour of the principle of subsidiarity, but also urged a stronger EU contribution to social policy. 

The minister pleaded for the EU to be perceived as "an opportunity to share social protection and social values" and stressed NGO's crucial role in defending and further developing the European Social Model. She criticised the "fairly minimal" role that the EU has played in the past in fostering investment in education and lifelong learning. A situation, she said, that has changed through the implementation of the Lisbon strategy: "We are now committed to dealing with social issues together with competitiveness." She named issues such as equality, combatting exclusion, reconciling work and family life and free movement, which, she said, "cannot be separated from the target of securing welfare for all citizens".

Haatainen said that the challenges of the near future were to:

  • Better manage social change;
  • pay more attention to the global dimension of social policies;
  • further develop the Open Method of Co-ordination;
  • coordinate the Lisbon strategy with the social protection agenda, and;
  • strengthen democracy by giving a more important social policy role to the European Parliament, increasing exchange of knowledge and strenghthening the role of social partners.

"EU decision-making cannot be based on knowledge alone," the minister said, "it needs to be backed up by common values. That is what makes up the European Social Model." 

Social Platform President Anne-Sophie Parent recalled concerns voiced by the Platform on the priorities of the Lisbon strategy in February 2005. She said that, in the meantime, "our voice has been heard by some decision-makers, including the Luxemburg, Austrian and Finnish presidencies". Social NGOs' influence was shown, she said, through its aim of poverty eradication, which had been deleted from the redrafted Lisbon agenda but returned later. Parent recalled that social protection remains "very high on people's agenda" and that this was the gauge Europeans would ultimately apply to decide whether European integration is really benefitting them. 

DG Employment Director General Nikolaus van der Pas said that the Platform's criticism of José Manuel Barroso was doing the Commission President "at the same time too much honour and too much injustice", because it ignored that the EU will only express the will of the legislators, namely the Parliament and the Council. This notion was dismissed by Parent, who claimed that, in addition to the Commission's right of intitiative, the conclusions of the 2005 and 2006 spring summits on social affairs were not properly transposed in the Commission's work programme. Parent blamed a "lack of cohesion in Commisison" and discrepancies between directorates-general for this blockage. 

In addition to this institutional context, van der Pas said, member states' traditions could not be ignored when implementing EU policies. He illustrated this claim by the example of German Labour Affairs minister Franz Müntefering, who got a very positive reaction when he asked a business audience about implementing flexicurity-type reforms in Germany. The response was much less benevolent, however, when Müntefering went on to ask whether his audience was willing to accept a 25% VAT and a 65% tax on company gains, as is the case in Denmark, the home country of flexicurity. 

Belgian Green MEP Pierre Jonckheer accepted the chief repsonsibility of the Parliament and the Council for EU policies. He pointed out, however, that solutions to social problems are harder to identify on a European level than in the countries themselves, because that implied finding compromises not only between competing interests, but also between different social models. In particular since enlargement, he said, differences concerning for instance labour relations have grown. "We are in a transitory period," Jonckheer explained, "and it will take a number of years before we can start discussing common policies." 

At a competing event Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: "We need a modern social vision to accompany our drive for open markets. Open markets and social solidarity are not, and should not be, contradictory. There is no greater instrument of social cohesion than full employment. And welfare states need to be put on a firm financial footing to be sustainable for future generations. To quote the start of the Commission's own document to the Hampton Court Summit: 'Europe must reform and modernise its policies to preserve its values'."

The conference, Social Values and Democracy: Renewing the guiding principles of the European Union, took place on 5 and 6 December 2006, at a time when the discussion on the Commission's Green Paper on labour law put the focus on the EU's social progress. 

The Social Platform was established in 1995 and brings together more than 40 European non-governmental organisations, federations and networks active in social policies.

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