Luxembourg Presidency sets out employment and social priorities

The Council of the European Union will be presided over by the Luxembourg government during the first six months of 2005. It has issued its priorities for its term, including the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy and the progression of a range of proposals, including the draft Directive on the revision of the working time Directive.

The Luxembourg government took over the Presidency of the EU Council of the European Union on 1 January 2005 for a six-month term. In a document setting out its priorities during its term of office, it lists a range of planned actions and initiatives in the area of employment and social policy.

The 10-year Lisbon strategy, which was initiated in March 2000 and aims to make Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010 (EU0004241F) is approaching its mid-point. A mid-term review of its progress and achievements will be therefore be undertaken in 2005. To this end, the European Commission will issue a report in February 2005, for discussion in the March 2005 spring European Council meeting. The Luxembourg Presidency states that it will use this review to:

  • take stock of the strategy;
  • refocus priorities;
  • improve the governance and implementation of the strategy; and
  • implement a specific communication strategy by target groups.

Referring to the report issued in November 2004 by the 'Kok group' (EU0412205F), the Presidency stresses that reforms to the Lisbon strategy are essential. However, it also notes that the strategy is 'the most ambitious socio-economic reform package of recent years' and that the changes sought under this are 'unlikely to come to fruition by 2010'. Nevertheless, it will confirm 2010 as the target date by which Member States should implement reforms to enable a 'notable change of trend' to take place.

The Presidency makes special mention of the knowledge-related aspects of the Lisbon strategy, such as the 'information society', innovation, research education, training and lifelong learning, as a way in which companies can be made more competitive. It aims to improve the governance of the Lisbon strategy and to rationalise existing processes connected to the strategy. It also wants to take more account of the problems of young people, drawing into the strategy existing measures to help young people and to create solidarity between generations.

The Presidency states that the current draft Directive on the internal market for services, which has been highly controversial (EU0412202N), is a 'key initiative' for EU economic growth, but admits that it has 'caused a great deal of misunderstanding'. The Presidency states that it will 'endeavour to re-examine this proposal in a more objective light by delimiting the scope of the Directive and specifying the range of the principle of the country of origin'. It is this 'country of origin' principle, under which service providers may be governed by the rules in force in their country of origin rather than the country in which they operate, that has caused most controversy. Most specifically, trade unions fear that this will lead to service providers basing themselves in a country with low labour costs and regulations and operating in another, to the detriment of the latter country.

A proposed Directive that deals with professional qualifications in the case of cross-border services is currently at second reading stage at the European Parliament. This Directive should apply in parallel to the services Directive.

The European Commission is currently engaged in drawing up a new social policy agenda, which will run from 2006 to 2010. It is expected that the Commission will submit this document in early 2005 and that it will be closely linked to the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy. The Presidency states that it will adopt the annual joint report on employment and the guidelines and recommendations to Member States (part of the 'Luxembourg process'), as well as the broad policy guidelines on employment.

The Luxembourg Presidency states that it will continue the work of the Dutch Presidency (whose term ran from July to December 2004) on the revision of the working time Directive. A draft Directive amending the Directive concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time (originally adopted in 1993 and now consolidated in Directive 2003/88/EC) is currently with the Council (EU0412206F). The new Presidency states that it will 'do its utmost to reach a political agreement' in the Council so as a response can be found to European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings on on-call working (in the Simap and Jaeger cases) and that a compromise can be found to make it 'possible to resolve the issue of maintaining the 'opt out''. This refers to the controversial provision allowing Member States to provide for individual opt-outs from the maximum 48-hour week. The UK is the country that has made most widespread use of this provision, although the recent ECJ rulings stating that on-call working should be classed as working time are leading other countries to consider making more use of it.

The Presidency envisages that political agreement can be reached on the 'recast' Directive that brings together into a single instrument seven existing Directives in the equality field. This measure was debated at the December 2004 social policy and employment Council (EU0412206F). Further, a proposal to set up an EU gender institute will be submitted in early 2005 and the Presidency hopes that political agreement can also be reached on this during its term. It will also monitor the United Nations Beijing action programme by holding a ministerial meeting in Luxembourg on 4 February.

The Luxembourg Presidency will progress amendments to the regulations on coordinating social security schemes and establish an integrated action programme in the area of education and lifelong learning. It also intends to continue with EU accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania, but notes that preparations for accession negotiations with Turkey are 'unlikely to begin before summer 2005'.

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