Employment and Social Policy Council agrees race discrimination Directive

The EU Employment and Social Policy Council held on 6 June 2000 reached unanimous political agreement on the Commission's proposed Directive implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons, irrespective of their racial or ethnic origin. The Council also discussed a number of other issues, such as social protection and minimum safety and health requirements regarding the use of work equipment.

The Employment and Social Policy Council of Ministers (as the Labour and Social Affairs Council has been renamed) met on 6 June 2000, under the Portuguese Presidency. The main development was a political agreement on the draft Directive on combating racial discrimination.

Race discrimination Directive

The draft Directive implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of their racial or ethnic origin, based on the new anti-discrimination Article 13 introduced into the European Community Treaty by the Amsterdam Treaty, was issued by the European Commission on 25 November 1999 (EU9912216N). The proposal formed part of a package of anti-discrimination measures, also including a framework Directive implementing the principle of equal treatment based on a wider set of criteria and a proposal for an action programme designed to combat discrimination.

The race discrimination Directive was given a reading by theEuropean Parliament (EP) on 18 May 2000, at which it voted to amend the text substantially. Although the Commission is not, under the decision-making procedure relating to Article 13 of the Treaty, obliged to accept any amendments made by the EP, the employment and social affairs Commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou, stated at the time that a number of the EP's amendments could be included in the text. The final text, although not yet publicly available pending formal adoption, is understood to contain a number of these amendments.

On 6 June, the Council reached a unanimous political agreement on the draft Directive. The main points of the Directive as it now stands are as follows (for a fuller analysis of the original text, see EU9912318F):

  • a definition of direct and indirect discrimination;
  • a right of redress for victims of discrimination, by means of a judicial or administrative procedure and appropriate sanctions for those found guilty of discrimination;
  • a shifting of the burden of proof in civil cases once a prima facie case of discrimination has been made and accepted by the court;
  • protection against harassment and victimisation;
  • protection against discrimination in a wide range of areas – employment and training, education, social protection (including security and healthcare), social advantages and the supply of, and access to, goods and services, including housing; and
  • Member States must establish bodies for the promotion of equal treatment and which will provide independent assistance to the victims of discrimination, conduct surveys and studies and publish reports and recommendations.

Member States will have three years, from the coming into force of this Directive, to transpose its provisions into national legislation. The Directive will be formally adopted at a future Council meeting.

Other issues

The Council also discussed a variety of other issues. A follow-up debate to the March 2000 Lisbon European Council meeting (EU0004241F) was held, concentrating on: the coordination between theEconomic and Financial Affairs Council and the Employment and Social Policy Council; the central role of the European Council; and the participation of the Employment and Social Policy Council in the definition of social and economic indicators. It then adopted conclusions underlining both the importance both of the Lisbon Council and of strengthening the guiding and coordinating role of the European Council and the different Councils' contributions to the preparation of the EU's broad economic policy guidelines (BEPG s) (EU0005250F). It also noted the importance of holding an annual meeting of the European Council each spring to debate economic and social issues. as decided in Lisbon. The Council decided that the mid-term review of the European employment strategy (EU9909187F) should follow the lines of the Lisbon conclusions, which set targets of raising the employment rate from 61% to 70% by 2010 and increasing the female employment rate from 51% to over 60% by that date.

The Council also took note of the work programme of theEmployment Committee for 2000, which focuses on strengthening and improving the "Luxembourg process" of annual EU Employment Guidelines and National Action Plans, and on contributing to the process of economic policy coordination. It then took note of the first progress report from the interim high-level working party on the strenghening of cooperation for modernising and improving social protection. The report identified two main areas for future work: combating social exclusion; and ensuring the viability and sustainability of pension schemes. This working party was set up following the December 1999 European Council (EU0001219N) and started work in January 2000.

The Council also reached unanimous political agreement on a decision to set up a Social Protection Committee, which will replace the interim high-level working party on social protection (see above). This committee will be a permanent advisory body comprising two representatives from each Member State and two from the European Commission.

Ministers took note of progress made concerning the review of Regulation 1408/71 on the coordination of social security systems for migrant workers. The Commission presented a proposal on 21 December 1998, aiming to simplify this Regulation.

Finally, the Council approved a Resolution on the balanced participation of women and men in family and working life and "arrived at a favourable orientation" concerning the proposed modification of Directive 89/655/EEC on minimum safety and health requirements for the use of work equipment by workers at work. This latter proposal centres on the use of scaffolding, ladders and ropes for working at a height. It is expected that work will continue on this dossier with a view to reaching a common position once the EP's Opinion – expected in September 2000 - has been received.

Commentary

The swift adoption of the race discrimination Directive is widely seen as impressive. It is also a clear indication that the Treaty's new Article 13 can successfully serve as a legal base for wide-ranging new proposals which can be progressed quickly, even though they are subject to unanimity in the Council. Commissioner Diamantopoulou praised all involved in the proposal, stating that: "This agreement, only a year after the Amsterdam Treaty came into force, is a clear sign of the commitment of the Community institutions to people's fundamental rights. The Directive will strengthen protection against racial discrimination across the Community and shows that we can make a practical and positive difference to the everyday lives of our people."

The new Directive will no doubt have a significant impact on the legislation of Member States as, although - in Ms Diamantopoulou's words - all have some form of ban on racial discrimination, the scope of Member States' legislation and its enforceability varies greatly. The Directive will thus serve to ensure a solid basis of minimum standards and enforceability.

The fate of the other Directive in the Commission's November 1999 package, the framework proposal covering discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, is as yet unclear. The EP's Opinion, given on 18 May 2000, focused exclusively on the race Directive and although the Economic and Social Committee (ESC) gave an Opinion on 26 May on the whole package of proposals, debates in Council have so far not touched in any depth on the framework Directive. However, a Commission spokesperson speaking at a conference on ethnic minorities in Europe held in Birmingham, the UK on 17-19 February 2000 stated that, in the context of the two anti-discrimination proposals: "if the Council decides to adopt one proposal before the other, then we will adapt the remaining text accordingly so that there is no overlap in the adopted legislation." It therefore looks highly likely that the framework Directive will now be revised in order to avoid any overlap with the soon-to-be-adopted race Directive. (Andrea Broughton, IRS).

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