Social affairs Councils examine discrimination proposals and prepare for employment summit

EU labour and social affairs ministers met twice during February and March 2000. The first meeting was an informal Council, held on 11 February in order to discuss preparatory papers for the March European Council summit in Lisbon, which was to focus on employment issues. The second was a formal Labour and Social Affairs Council, which looked at the European Commission's package of anti-discrimination measures, in addition to holding further discussions on preparations for the Lisbon summit.

Informal Council

Labour and social affairs ministers, MEP s, European-level social partners and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGO s) met informally in Lisbon on 11 February 2000. An exchange of views was held on the Portuguese Presidency's preparatory paper to be submitted to the special European Council on Employment, economic reform and social cohesion - towards a Europe of innovation and knowledge, to be held in Lisbon on 23–24 March 2000 (EU0001220N). The Portuguese Presidency's paper focuses on ways of encouraging a competitive and inclusive knowledge-based economy.

The European Commission has also prepared a paper for the Lisbon Council, entitled Strategies for jobs in the information society. Further preparatory papers from the Commission include a policy paper on social inclusion (see below). There was a general consensus in the meeting that cooperation on social protection should focus on social inclusion and the modernisation of pension arrangements in Member States.

Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou stated that: "In social and economic policy, the European Union is entering a new phase. We have agreed that we must build the demands of the knowledge society into our policy process. And we have agreed that concrete targets for social inclusion must be set."

The Commission and the European Parliament then urged the Council to cooperate in the completion of outstanding business in the European social policy area, such as the proposals for a European Company Statute (EU9911211F), the extension of the 1993 working time Directive to excluded sectors and activities (EU9901144F), and the Commission's November 1998 proposals for a Directive regulating information and consultation structures at national level (EU9812135F).

Commissioner Diamantopoulou also noted that: "This is the first meeting of the Council after the Austrian elections and the coming to power of the far right ... We have also seen consensus around the table that priority must be given by Council and Parliament to adoption of the anti-discrimination package proposed by the Commission last November. We now see clearly that our union is not only an economic one but a political one."

Formal Council

A formal Labour and Social Affairs Council of Ministers took place on 13 March 2000 and focused on two issues: the Commission's anti-discrimination proposals and the forthcoming Lisbon summit.

The Council heard an oral report from the Commission concerning the progress made to date on its package of anti-discrimination proposals, issued in November 1999 (EU9912218F). An exchange of views on this subject was then held. The Commission's anti-discrimination package comprises three legislative elements:

Many delegations expressed their view that it was of paramount political importance to adopt this package as quickly as possible and welcomed the work of the Portuguese Presidency on this dossier so far. The Presidency concluded that it would now be possible to progress this dossier rapidly, and reiterated its desire to do so. These proposals are based on Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty and are subject to adoption by unanimity in the Council.

The Council then held an exchange of views concerning the progress of preparations for the special European Council on 23–24 March 2000. Commissioner Diamantopoulou presented a variety of Commission papers for submission to the Council, including four separate Communications: Strategies for jobs in the information society; Community policies in support of employment; Building an inclusive Europe; and Social trends: prospects and challenges.

In addition, Seamus O'Morain, president of the Employment and Labour Market Committee (ELC), presented an ELC opinion, which was followed by a general debate in which many delegations stressed the importance they attached to the Lisbon summit, with many making reference to their own contributions submitted as part of the preparation for the summit. TheUnion of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) have also prepared detailed submissions for the Lisbon summit (EU0003236F).

The Presidency concluded that the discussions held during this Council had been very fruitful and stated that is would like the views which had been expressed to be included in a written contribution which the Presidency was preparing for the Lisbon summit. It therefore gave the delegations 48 hours to submit their comments, focusing on four main themes:

  • the reinforcement of the "Luxembourg process" (ie the process of EU Employment Guidelines and National Action Plans) and the improvement of the efficiency of the Employment Guidelines, centring on their rationalisation and simplification, and the addition of new quantified targets in some areas, particularly lifelong training and employment in domestic and childcare services;
  • the modernisation of social protection, focusing on reinforced cooperation between Member States in the form of a structured dialogue within the framework of the high-level group on social protection. Cooperation could also include the exchange of information and good practice;
  • the promotion of social inclusion by means of improving access to the labour market and reinforcing policies aimed at increasing employability. This could also include an examination of the role of social protection systems; and
  • the reinforcement of coordination between the existing employment processes – the Luxembourg process (EU9711168F), the "Cardiff process", which focuses on economic and structural reforms (EU9806109F) and the "Cologne process", which encourages macroeconomic dialogue (EU9906180N).

Finally, the Council approved without debate the Employment Guidelines to Member States for 2000 (EU9909187F).

Commentary

The focus of Labour and Social Affairs Councils during the Portuguese Presidency has so far largely centred on employment/unemployment, as preparations are finalised for the Lisbon summit. A great deal of effort appears to be going into the preparation for this summit, on the part of both Member States and the European institutions and social partners. All hope that this summit will agree on measures which will have a positive impact on unemployment across the EU, adding to the work already undertaken at the Luxembourg, Cardiff and Cologne Councils. Time alone will tell whether these processes, and in particular the Luxembourg process, will have any lasting impact on unemployment levels in Europe.

Because the Portuguese Presidency has so far concentrated debate at Labour and Social Affairs Councils very much on employment/unemployment, little formal progress has been made on the concrete legislative proposals which are still on the table – notably, the worker involvement aspects of European Company Statute, the extension of the working time Directive, the proposed discrimination package and the Commission's proposals for a Directive on national-level information and consultation arrangements. Once the Lisbon summit is over, it is likely that attention will return to these outstanding social policy dossiers, and in particular the anti-discrimination proposals, which the Presidency has stated that it is keen to progress. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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