Spanish reactions to the Employment Summit

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Both the trade unions and the employers' organisations have reacted to the Spanish Government's position at the special EU Employment Summit held in Luxembourg in November 1997. The former have expressed their profound dissatisfaction, while the latter support the attitude of the Government, but would like to see more measures that would allow companies to generate employment. The reaction of the opposition parties and public opinion in general was also very critical.

The special European Council meeting on job creation - the Employment Summit- was held in Luxembourg on 20-21 November 1997 (EU9711168F).

Position of the Spanish Government

The main measure approved in Luxembourg was to offer, over a five-year period, vocational training, reintegration into employment, occupational retraining or a work-experience contract to all unemployed people under the age of 25 before they have been unemployed for six months, and to all unemployed people over the age of 45 before they have been unemployed for one year. This measure was not acceptable to the Spanish Government, which obtained an extension of the period, and with no binding commitment.

This position is striking not only because Spain has a 20% rate of unemployment but also because the number of long-term unemployed people stands at 1.8 million. That is to say, there are enormous pools of unemployed people under the age of 25 or over the age of 45 who have been seeking work for long periods with little chance of finding a job. A low level of formal education is characteristic of a high percentage of unemployed people in Spain. Furthermore, vocational/occupational training currently reaches only a small proportion of the unemployed every year and some of it is of doubtful quality. This is therefore a shortcoming that must be remedied as soon as possible.

A few days after the summit, the Prime Minister justified this position to the Spanish Parliament, stating that Spain would have been unable to meet the cost of such measures. This reason has been rejected by both the trade unions and the opposition parties, and seems incomprehensible to public opinion, which is very sensitive to the problem of employment. All the critics suggest that the Government has adopted the position because it does not wish to compromise the objectives of EU economic convergence by running the risk of the public deficit going out of control. The Spanish Government has not been criticised only in Spain. Senior officials in the European Commission find the position hard to understand too. They believe that it is "eroding their credibility" over such a delicate and important topic and that this will leave Spain in a weak position with regard to other topics of great importance (this is understood as a reference to the structural funds, for example).

Response of the trade unions

The Spanish trade unions had placed great hopes in the European summit on employment. Their negotiating capacity is currently at a high point, and as the leaders of the fight against unemployment they put their proposals to Prime Minister José María Aznar before the summit. These proposals stressed the need: to increase investment and economic resources in order to stimulate job creation; to establish mechanisms to coordinate economic and fiscal policies so that they can have beneficial effects on employment; to seek quantifiable commitments by the governments of the EU to reduce unemployment; and to reorganise and reduce working time.

The five-year plan was the only one of these proposals that was clearly expressed in the conclusions of the summit, and even in this case no corrective measures or sanctions were established for countries that fail to fulfil it. Nevertheless, the criticism of the summit by the Spanish unions was not unequivocal. They see a positive aspect in the stimulus that it has given to the social dialogue in its role in combating unemployment, but they also stress the negative aspects: the absence of precise references to budgetary resources for employment policies, and the lack of coordination of employment policies at a Union level.

The Spanish position at the summit comes in for severe criticism. The general secretaries of the CC.OO andUGT union confederations accuse Mr Aznar of attempting to boycott the summit, since his employment policy is allegedly either mere propaganda or indicative of his inability to deal with events of this nature. They regret the fact that the Spanish Government has opposed an - albeit tentative - basis for introducing labour policies among the priorities of the Union, because Spain is one of the countries that could most benefit from it.

Opinion of the employers

The employers were far more benevolent towards the Government, but critical of other agreements reached at the summit. The chair of the employers' association CEOE stated that the Spanish Government has not excluded itself from the key guideline, but has taken a realistic stance in accordance with the situation in Spain. The employers' organisation gives far more importance to other guidelines adopted at the summit, in particular those that stress the need to reduce taxes and social burdens on companies so that they can create employment. They also stress the importance of the fact that the social partners were assigned a major role in the negotiations on modernising the "organisation of labour". Other sectoral or regional employers' organisations that belong to the CEOE have qualified the Government's views as brave or realistic.

National employment action plan for 1998

The Prime Minister and the Minister of Labour have expressed their intention to meet the employment commitments of the EU. The latter stated that the Spanish position does not mean that no effort will be made to adapt to the five-year plan. The former declared that his Government will attempt to meet these commitments by drawing up the "national employment action plan" which it is to present to the EU in spring 1998. However, neither of the two has stated exact dates or made firm commitments.

The trade unions and the employers' organisations are requesting an active participation in the drawing up of this plan. Furthermore the unions also want the 1998 Budget to be reoriented in order to devote more resources to employment and training, in accordance with the conclusions from Luxembourg. UGT and CC.OO suggest various ways to increase the resources devoted to employment policy: fiscal reforms; a public deficit target of 2.5% instead of the 2.4% proposed by the Government; and maintaining the volume of resources devoted to training and unemployment in 1997, reorienting them as necessary towards training and job reintegration.

At any rate, the drawing up of the national employment action plan will make it possible not only to discuss the volume of resources, but also to establish time frames, to propose controls and to set up monitoring commissions. The unions and the opposition parties see this as being the basis for a more consistent employment policy than the present one.

Commentary

The guidelines of the Luxembourg summit may mark a beginning by defining certain objectives, that as yet have little backing and few control mechanisms. They may constitute a minimum basis for constructing both more consistent employment policies in each country and - as quickly as possible - employment policies for the European Union.

Because of this, the position of the Spanish Government indicates not only little desire to solve the main problem facing the country today, but a dangerous isolation that may have very negative consequences in terms of social integration and in terms of European cohesion policies.

Having said that, it would be naive to think that the mere adoption of the guideline would be a panacea against unemployment. Greater resources, much work and much quality must be devoted to training and job integration to obtain beneficial effects from them. It is of little use to offer training to all the unemployed if it is not suitable or not linked to job integration and to specific employment policies. Furthermore, the promotion of training will come up immediately against a dead-end if no jobs are available. Because of this, training policies and employment policies must be closely linked. Both must be politically sound and based on social agreements at a European and member state level. But they must be implemented at the local level. This is where specific employment plans must convert the new needs into employment, and stimulate the ability to adapt to these new needs in the framework of fairer and more balanced welfare objectives. (Faustino Miguélez, QUIT)

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