Social partners set out priorities for future Belgian EU Presidency
In December 2000, Belgium's bipartite Central Economic Council adopted a framework opinion on the Belgian Presidency of the European Union during the second half of 2001. The social partners set out five areas on which the Belgian Presidency should concentrate its efforts.
In September 2000, the federal minister for the economy, Charles Picqué, asked the social partners on the bipartite Central Economic Council (Conseil Central de l'Économie/Centrale raad voor het bedrijfsleven, CCE/CRB) to select the topics to which the forthcoming Belgian Presidency of the EU - which runs from 1 July to 31 December 2001 - should attach special importance. At its meeting on 7 December 2000, the Council unanimously adopted a opinion on this issue. The trade unions and employers' organisations described the document as a first contribution, aimed at setting the main goals of the presidency, while a second, more detailed opinion will be issued in spring 2001.
At the presentation of the Council's initial proposal to the press, its president, Robert Tollet, expressed his satisfaction at the Belgian social partners' strong involvement in the debates on Europe's future. At all important stages of the construction of the European Union, he stated, the Council has expressed opinions that show the importance that Belgian trade unions and employers attach to this construction process. Furthermore, the involvement of the social partners is an additional asset during a country's EU Presidency, according to Mr Tollet.
At a time when the Belgian government is in the process of drawing up the agenda for its EU Presidency, the social partners have clearly defined the areas that should be given priority during the second half of 2001. There are five priorities (with particular emphasis on the first three) : the institutions; the follow-up of the Lisbon summit; macroeconomic coordination; sustainable development; and international trade. The Council's choice of these areas is dictated either by the necessities of the European agenda or to enable Belgium, specifically, to stand out as a driving force behind socio-economic integration.
The social partners take up the idea already announced by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of achieving during the Belgian Presidency a "declaration" by the 15 Member States on the final political, economic and social purposes of the construction of the EU. The CCE/CRB supports such efforts if they fulfil the double purpose of boosting the process of integration and facilitating a harmonious enlargement process, and hence strengthen the socio-economic identity of the Union. The framework document emphasises improving the functioning of the institutions, extending the area covered by qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers and improving social dialogue.
The Lisbon follow-up
The Swedish Presidency of the first half of 2001 is to initiate a first evaluation of the decisions on promoting employment adopted at the Lisbon European Council summit in March 2000 (EU0004241F). Following this initial evaluation, the social partners request the Belgian Presidency to indicate the areas where the Lisbon objectives do not seem to have been directly fulfilled, and to initiate action in these areas. The CCE/CRB will follow up developments in areas such as full employment, social cohesion and promotion of research and development. It also calls for improved interaction between the major employment-related processes launched by the EU in recent years - those agreed at Luxembourg in 1997 (EU9711168F), Cardiff in 1998 (EU9806109F) and Cologne in 1999 (EU9906180N) - and between the main actors concerned, including the social partners.
As well as taking over the EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2001, Belgium holds the Presidency from 1 January 2001 of the "euro-group" of countries which have introduced the single currency (as Sweden is not participating the euro). The CCE/CRB views this continuity as a particular opportunity to strengthen further the coordination of policies concerning the major macroeconomic issues. The social partners highlight three specific responsibilities of the Belgian Presidency:
- improved "macroeconomic dialogue" (through the "Cologne process";)
- the continuation of the recent progress in the area of tax policy coordination; and
- the smooth introduction of euro notes and coins from 1 January 2002.
The CCE/CRB requests the Belgian Presidency to be vigilant in the area of sustainable development and to abide by the principles laid down in various EU texts, with emphasis on five specific topics:
- food safety;
- rational use of energy;
- food production standards; and
- agricultural "multifunctionality".
Following the failed World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle in December 1999 (EU9912217N), and with a new round of negotiations beginning at the end of 2001, the CCE/CRB statement reminds the Belgian Presidency and the EU to be vigilant in this area.