Social and Employment Policies of the European Union
Ms. Odile Quentin
Director General, European Commission
Today, I welcome the opportunity to be with you to present the European Union's social and employment policies.
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In preparation of this visit I studied the most recent statics on Norway. What stands out most, is the fact that Norway is a country with one of the highest living standards in the world. With considerable income equality. And with strong social and regional policy traditions.
Reading the press clippings from press service I also learned that the European Union is, just as during my last visit, on the top of the Norwegian agenda. Many, possibly most, of you are rather pro-EU membership. But it is not my role to join the debate, or try to sell the EU to you.
Rather I will simply review our current agenda. Covering:
· What we have achieved over recent years in terms of social and employment policies, and where we are going
· How the social dialogue and co-operation between the social partners is developing
· How we see the enlargement of the Union affecting our everyday work, and our future perspectives.
I can also answer – in our discussion afterwards - any specific questions you may have concerning current discussions within the Council of Ministers on social issues, or the work of the Convention on a European Constitution - where we just have finalised the work of the Social Policy working group.
All of which will, I hope, add some flavour at least to the information that you already obtain though the European Economic Area Agreement.
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To put our discussion in context, most of you will know that work in the employment and social field has developed strongly under the joint impetus of the European Council of Heads of State and the Commission.
Who have, together, exploited the increased emphasis placed on employment and social issues in the Amsterdam Treaty revisions made in 1997 (Employment Chapter, UK opting in).
This has been reflected in strong political commitments. In 2000, the Lisbon strategy set out three main objectives, within the context of achieving a knowledge based economy and society :
· to reach full employment;
· to improve economic growth and promote EU competitiveness;
· to improve social cohesion and create an inclusive labour market
The same year, leaders at the Nice summit approved the Social Policy Agenda. And in Brussels in 2001, agreements were reached on the quality dimension of policy.
During this time, the Commission has sought to made good use of new legal provisions, too – notably on anti-discrimination. And it has strongly supported the social partners in using the new Treaty provisions to work more closely together.
The overall result has been that Europe has set itself new strategic priorities for the coming years.
Using its more comprehensive range of policies and tools. Covering, not just legislation – the most traditional – but also the potential for co-operation, both between governments through the open method of co-ordination, and between the social partners.
With the Commission providing a strong policy framework for the work of governments in areas like employment, social protection and pensions – in the shape of guidelines, benchmarks, assessments, and so on.
And providing another kind of supportive framework for social partner co-operation. With European Parliament support across all these areas.
I will not go into every detail, or all these different elements. But will concentrate, rather, on the Social Policy Agenda. Which was adopted in Nice in December 2000. And which will be the subject of a mid-term evaluation in two months time, in March.
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The Social Policy Agenda is essentially focused on three issues:
· Meeting the conditions for sustainable full employment;
· Building a society that is inclusive and open to diversity;
· Promoting quality in employment and in social policies.
Sustainable full employment
The first strategic priority – as established by the Lisbon Summit – is to restore the conditions for sustainable full employment.
This means, in practice, working to increase the overall EU employment rate from 63% in 2000 to 70%, including raising that of women from 54% in 2000 to 60%, and that of "older workers" from under 40% to 50%.
On this, we have been rather successful.
· Employment policies have become far more active and preventive, rather than passive, with the public employment services more focussed;
· Training levels have increased with Social Fund support;
· The gap between men and women – in terms of employment rates and income equality - has fallen;
· And the capacity of enterprises and employees to adapt has increased with the development of new forms of employment, such as fixed-term contracts and temporary work, or part-time work. Here the social partners have played a key role through their agreements which have been adopted as Community legislations.
· Past reforms have helped to increase resilience of EU labour markets to the economic downturn. Creating more than 10m new jobs, with a further 500.000 being added this year. And reducing long-term unemployment from 5.2% to 3.3% since 1997.
At the same time, the social dialogue has been important in promoting more job-intensive growth. Not least through wage moderation negotiations.
Which is part of the reason why we have been successful in getting agreement for the establishment of a 'Social summit for growth and employment' on the eve of each spring European Council. Bringing together the European social partners, the Commission, and the Presidency of the Council.
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Social dialogue is a cornerstone of our policy.
Also we have encouraged the development of the autonomous and voluntary social dialogue. Which we see as one of the best ways of balancing flexibility and security in working life, with an emphasis on work organisation, lifelong training or the anticipation and positive management of restructuring – a major topic in many countries and sectors, that are still going through far-reaching changes.
A new social partner work programme has been established, building on recent agreements on teleworking and on lifelong training, and showing that the European social partners are progressing towards more autonomous and voluntary contractual arrangements.
I know that the Norwegian social partners are playing a very positive role in this context taking full part in the European social dialogue.
Your national tripartite agreement on a more inclusive workplace, adressing in particular to the problem of sick leave, is a very interesting and important achievement which I hope could inspire similar developments at EU level.
In terms of the employment dimension of our overall policy – the European employment strategy – we have recently adopted a Commission communication setting out our views on the future. This document will form the basis for our input to the European Council meeting in March.
After which we expect to see new guidelines adopted in April. Focused on the medium term - up to 2010 – but with scope for more limited changes each year, as needed.
The future European Employment Strategy will underline three main objectives
· to raise employment
· to improve quality in the work
· And to provide support for social cohesion and an inclusive labour market
In this new medium-term perspective, the guidelines should highlight major objectives, be more focussed on results, which imply appropriate quantified targets, such as raising the employment rate of older workers — those over the age of 55 years.
Indeed, we are a long way from achieving the "target" of 50% for the employment rate for people over the age of 55 years. In 2001 their average employment rate in the Union of 15 was only about 38%. And it is only around 31% on average in the ten candidate countries, and under 35% when we include Romania and Bulgaria.
Which brings me to the fact that the ten countries that will join us in 2004 will also have to submit their action plans in the autumn of that year so that they, like everybody else, can focus on both raising employment rates and improving job quality – more and better jobs, and an inclusive labour market.
A more focussed Employment Strategy is still more necessary to offer full support to the acceeding countries and taking account the increased regional disparities of an enlarged Union.
The second strategic priority of the social agenda is to build a society that is inclusive, and open to diversity.
On this, the Council of Ministers meeting of last December strengthened the "common objectives" that had been adopted in 2000. Notably they called on the Member States to set themselves specific, quantified objectives - especially for reducing the number of people threatened with poverty in the period up to 2010.
The adoption of such national objectives is an important way of consolidating political commitments, and maintaining the political impetus. In this way we show that the inclusion strategy - like the employment strategy - is a lasting policy, and not a luxury for the 'good times'.
Although this strategy is recent, co-operation with the candidate countries is already highly developed. With bilateral seminars, and preparations for policy memoranda and action plans by 2005, on the basis of the common objectives adopted in December 2004. And with the involvement of the all parties concerned, including local government and NGOs.
This strategy is also being supported in other ways too - including actions to integrate disadvantaged or vulnerable groups, and to address any forms of racial, ethnic or other discrimination that might limit equal opportunities on the labour market. Which, again, covers the new Member States.
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An important focus of policy, in this respect, concerns the modernisation of social protection. Many areas covering social protection have already been addressed directly or indirectly at EU level in the context of providing free movement for workers, internal market provisions and, very importantly, in the context of the economic policy co-ordination (the Broad Economic policy Guidelines).
We are now addressing different strands of social cohesion and social protection through a system of open co-ordination in the same spirit as on employment and economic affairs but through a lighter procedure. We begun through social inclusion and the fight against poverty. Then, last year, objectives for the reform of pension schemes were adopted, with the first "national strategies" for reform presented in September, for the first time in an integrated way. The Commission is also following this up with the ten candidate countries in the first half of this year. We are also beginning to address the issue of health. The next step should be a streamlined procedure on social protection covering the different strands on social protection (inclusion, pensions and health) to follow the same timing as employment and the BEPGs.
In all these areas, we are working to develop an overall approach, based on partnership with all the interests concerned, and using all the available policy instruments.
Quality in employment and social policies
This approach is also reflected in the third strategic dimension of the social agenda, namely the promotion of quality in employment and social policies.
We first addressed this issue in a significant way two years ago, with a policy communication, and a major Conference. And we intend to develop this approach progressively over the coming years.
There are many sound economic and social reasons to do so. As last year's Commission report on 'Employment in Europe' shows, in a context of rapid economic and industrial change, quality promotes both an increase in productivity and job creation.
Which is why the future employment strategy should attach particular importance to quality issues such as:
· Improvements in labour productivity with a focus on a high-quality labour force and greater access to vocational training;
· Improvement in the working environment with more attention to health issues and a reduction in accidents and diseases;
· Improvement in the "intrinsic quality" of work, including the important and controversal dimension of remuneration. This should be seen in the perspective of career progression.
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These three strategic priorities – full employment, inclusion and quality – are fundamental goals. For which we will harness all the instruments of social policy, in partnership with all the groups involved.
These are not easy tasks, especially at a time when the World economy is at its lowest ebb for decades, and where military concerns have both complicated our tasks, and diverted political attention.
We remain optimistic, however. And we remain determined. We need to stick to the approach adopted in Lisbon and maintain the commitment to structural reform. This will be a very important tool, especially in the perspective of enlargement.
The last 5 years have been extremely important for Europe. With the launch of the single currency, to work alongside the single market. And with the growing recognition that good social policies – as we have in the EU – are the basis for economic success, as well as social success.
In conclusion I would say:
We see economic and social policies in the European Union becoming more coherent. Between policy areas. And across countries.
Between labour market policies and social protection. Between economic policies and employment policies. For example.
With policy convergence across countries partly reflecting economic convergence. But also reflecting the fact that most countries face similar problems, and are likely to pursue broadly similar solutions.
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Policy action is also developing in more diverse ways.
There is a bedrock of legislation. Particularly focused on fundamental rights, equality and equal opportunities, but also on minimum standards – whether in labour law (cf. Information and consultation), or heath and safety (cf. Asbestos), and free movement, extension of regulation 1408 to third country nationals.
Increasingly, though, we are making more use of new forms of co-ordination – but with common guidelines, targets, and recommendations – in areas where national and European competences are mixed or shared.
Increasingly, too, we are seeing more positive and effective co-operation between the social partners. With some breakthrough agreements on issues like tele-working. With a new five-year programme of joint projects and actions between the main social partner groups.
And with an increasing high level political role accorded to the social partners, with a Social Summit before each Spring European Council, which provides a focus point for the development of the EU's broad economic and social strategy. The further development of Corporate Social Responsibility is one of our milestones for next year when we will look at the progress achieved in the context of the multi-stakeholder forum which will be working hard this year.
All of this, of course, we are now extending – as I have said - to the new Members. Creating a Union of 450 million people. But with diversity continuing to be as important an element as integration.
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We are all sorry, in Brussels, that you are not part of our show – although we know that you follow what we do very closely.
But we know you are there. And I am sure we will continue to remain as friendly and welcoming to each other in the future, as we have been in the past, and as we are today.