Commission issues new five-year social policy agenda

In late June 2000, the European Commission issued a Communication on a new social policy agenda in which it sets out its proposed social policy objectives and actions over the coming five years. All the main social policy issues are covered, including gender equality, discrimination, the new work environment and fundamental rights. The social partners are also called on to play an active role in the development of policy.

Proposals for a "new five-year social policy agenda" were issued by the European Commission on 28 June 2000 in the form of a Communication to theCouncil of Ministers, theEuropean Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and theCommittee of the Regions (COM(2000) 379 final). This document follows on from the discussions concerning employment and information technology which took place at the Lisbon European Council meeting, held in March 2000 (EU0004241F). Most specifically, the Commission hopes to modernise the "European social model" and to convert the political commitments made at the Lisbon summit into action.

In its Communication, the Commission lists its objectives in a number of areas and follows this by proposing a range of actions, taking the form of either new initiatives or commitments to progress existing proposals.

Full employment and quality of work

Towards more and better jobs

The Commission defines an objective of raising the employment rate in Europe to as close as possible to 70% by 2010 and increasing the proportion of women in work to over 60% by 2020. It lists a number of action points which it deems necessary in order to achieve this, including:

  • to propose Community incentive measures in the field of employment, based on Article 129 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC);
  • to invite the social partners to contribute and cooperate more systematically to the European employment strategy (EU9909187F) and to develop dialogue and negotiations "at all relevant levels", and in particular in the area of lifelong learning; and
  • to undertake a review and assessment of the impact of the Luxembourg process of annual EU Employment Guidelines and National Action Plans on employment (EU9711168F).

Anticipating and managing change and adapting to the new working environment

The social policy agenda states the objective of developing a "positive and proactive approach" to change by informing both companies and employees of both the employment and the social consequences of "integration measures" such as mergers and acquisitions. In addition, the Commission believes that working conditions and contractual relations need to be adapted to the "new economy", whilst ensuring that the appropriate balance is maintained between flexibility and security. Its proposed actions include:

  • launching consultation of the social partners on modernising and improving employment relations. This has in fact already taken place – the Commission's consultation paper was issued to the social partners on 26 June 2000 (EU0007259N);
  • following up the forthcoming social partner negotiations on temporary agency work. Negotiations are occurring during 2000 following the decision taken by the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) in May to enter into talks at European level on this issue (EU0005245N);
  • consulting the social partners on the need to establish, at European level, voluntary mechanisms on mediation, arbitration and conciliation for conflict resolution;
  • completing and codifying Community legislation on working time (EU0005249F);
  • adopting the draft Directives relating to the European Company Statute (EU9911211F) and the information and consultation of employees at national level (EU9812135F);
  • codifying and simplifying health and safety legislation and adopting a Communication on Community strategy relating to health and safety at work;
  • launching a Communication and action plan on the financial participation of workers; and
  • inviting the social partners to pursue negotiations and collective bargaining "where appropriate" on issues related to work organisation and new forms of work and to begin discussions which might lead to negotiations on "the shared responsibility between business and employees regarding the employability and adaptability of the workforce, in particular with regard to occupational mobility".

The knowledge-based economy

Proposals in on exploiting the opportunities of the "knowledge-based economy" follow on from the conclusions of the Lisbon summit. The most concrete proposal is to invite the social partners to focus their discussions on lifelong learning and new forms of work which are related to information technology.

Promoting mobility

In order to ensure the free movement of workers in the Community, the Commission wishes to remove all obstacles to geographical mobility. It will also monitor the application of Community rules on free movement of workers and develop mechanisms to facilitate mobility, including the use of new technologies. Proposed action includes:

  • adopting existing proposals on the simplification and extension of Regulation 1408/71 on social security for migrant workers and Regulation 1612/68 on freedom of movement for workers;
  • creating a pensions forum which will address the issue of supplementary pensions and mobility. After discussion in the forum, the Commission intends to propose an instrument on transferability of supplementary pensions; and
  • issuing a Communication regarding problems related to free movement in the public service, and undertaking "specific actions" to encourage the mobility of researchers, students, trainees, teachers and trainers.

Quality of social policy

Modernising and improving social protection

The Commission wishes to modernise and improve social protection in the Community in response to a number of factors, including the development of the "knowledge economy" and changes in social and family structures. It wishes to improve cooperation between Member States and enlist the help and involvement of all relevant actors, including the social partners, non-governmental organisations (NGO s) and social protection institutions. Concrete proposals for action include:

  • issuing a Communication on the future of social protection in the medium and long term, with particular reference to pensions;
  • establishing a social protection committee and supporting its work by helping to develop objectives, indicators and the exchange of good practice;
  • preparing a joint Commission/Council annual social protection report; and
  • developing cooperation with Community institutions, social partners and social protection institutions in order to devise an agenda for modernisation.

Promoting social inclusion

The Commission aims to prevent and eradicate poverty and exclusion and to promote the integration and participation of everybody in economic and social life. Concrete action points in this area include:

  • launching a consultation of all relevant actors on the best ways to promote the integration of people who are excluded from the labour market;
  • issuing an annual report on inclusion policy; and
  • evaluating the impact of the European Social Fund (ESF), including the Community initiative EQUAL (EU9910204N).

Promoting gender equality

The Commission wishes to promote the full participation of women in "economic, scientific, social, political and civic life". Action points include the following:

  • implementing the new Community framework strategy and specific programme on gender equality (EU0007264F) and further strengthening equality rights by making full use of the Treaty – particular reference is made to a proposal in 2002 for an equal treatment Directive based on Article 13 in areas other than employment and occupation;
  • adopting the proposal for a Directive modifying the 1976 equal treatment Directive, issued on 7 June 2000 (EU0006255F); and
  • inviting the social partners to strengthen their social dialogue, particularly in the areas of equal pay, gender desegregation of the labour market, and reconciliation between family and working life.

Reinforcing fundamental rights and combating discrimination

The Commission notes that future action on fundamental rights and discrimination, in particular the adoption of the proposed Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union (EU0004242F), will build upon the recently agreed Directive on equal treatment irrespective of racial and ethnic origin (EU0006256F). It proposes a number of action points, including:

Promoting quality in industrial relations

The agenda's section on "promoting quality in industrial relations" focuses on the social dialogue, with the objective of ensuring that it makes an effective contribution at all levels to the challenges identified. A number of suggestions for action relate to the review, improvement and better coordination of existing social dialogue structures, including:

  • consulting the social partners at European level in order to identify areas of common interest, including those which offer the best possibility for collective bargaining;
  • monitoring the representativeness of the social partners at European level and updating a study on the issue;
  • launching a reflection group on the future of industrial relations;
  • promoting the interaction between European-level and national-level social dialogue by organising round-tables on issues of common interest, such as work organisation, the future of work and new forms of work; and
  • organising a conference to review with the social partners the functioning of the social dialogue structures at both intersectoral and sectoral levels and proposing adaptations if necessary.

Implementation and monitoring

In order to monitor and control social regulation, the Commission proposes the creation of some new structures:

  • a high-level group of Member State officials which will be briefed to work with the Commission on the implementation and review of Community legislation and facilitating its transposition. Particular areas cited are working conditions, equal treatment between men and women and anti-discrimination; and
  • the development of a network of national labour inspectors in order to monitor the implementation of Community legislation. This would be formed along the lines of existing structures in the area of health and safety.

Commentary

This social policy agenda spanning the coming five years contains a variety of interesting proposals, including some which could have far-reaching consequences for the development of European-level social policy and social regulation. In terms of the progression of existing proposed instruments, the Commission gives a clear indication that it will push for progress on issues such as the European Company Statute, the proposed Directive on national-level information and consultation of workers, the proposed Directive outlawing discrimination on a wide range of grounds and the proposed revision of the 1976 equal treatment Directive. The latter two proposals are relatively new. The former two, however, have been on the table for some time – around 30 years in the case of the European Company Statute and since November 1998 in the case of the proposal on national-level information and consultation. If agreement in Council can be reached on these two issues, progress will definitely be deemed to have been made.

The other area of particular interest here is the emphasis placed on the future role of the social partners at European level, which are encouraged to formulate their views, to contribute more fully and to negotiate in a range of areas. The most potentially far-reaching of these is the Commission's pledge to consult with the social partners on the need to establish, at European level, voluntary mechanisms in the areas of mediation, arbitration and conciliation for conflict resolution. This would be the first time that these issues will have been discussed in a European framework, and as such would be a significant development. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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