Italian Presidency sets out priorities

The Italian government holds the EU Presidency in the second half of 2003. In the employment and social field, its priorities include achieving a fair balance between flexibility of the labour market and social security, progress towards reform of pension systems, and the promotion of equal opportunities. A highlight of the Presidency will be the convening of an Intergovernmental Conference to agree the text of a new EU constitutional Treaty.

The Italian government took over the EU Presidency from Greece on 1 July 2003, and will hold it until the end of the year. It has set out its programme and priorities in a document entitled Europe: Citizens of a shared dream.

Intergovernmental Conference

One of the main general priorities of the Presidency is to convene, by October 2003, an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) to examine a new constitutional Treaty for the EU, and to ensure that its work is conducted speedily, so as to allow the new Treaty to be signed as soon as possible after 1 May 2004. It is hoped that this will take place in Rome. The timetable aims to allow EU citizens to be informed of the main features of the future Union before elections to the European Parliament take place in June 2004. The new Treaty will be based on the proposals submitted by the European Convention to the European Council summit held in Thessaloniki on 19-20 June 2003 (EU0307204F).

Enlargement

Progress towards what the Presidency terms 'Greater Europe' will be made through the new Member States due to join the EU in 2004 (EU0301201N) attending and participating in subordinate bodies of the European Council during the remainder of 2003. As well as working for an effective start to the activities of the enlarged Union and the full integration of the new Member States into the Union’s institutions, the Presidency will endeavour to complete the process of enlargement by drawing up a 'route map' for concluding accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania by 2004, and confirming the prospect of their accession by 2007. As regards Turkey, the pre-accession strategy will continue and the country will be encouraged to carry out the necessary reforms to enable it to join the EU.

Employment and social policy

The Italian Presidency's employment and social policy objectives include building on the successes of previous Presidencies in terms of progress towards achieving the goals of the strategy for employment agreed at the Lisbon European Council in March 2000 (EU0004241F). The 'Lisbon strategy' has the aim of 'achieving the strategic goal of making the European economy more modern, flexible and integrated, open to research and new technologies' and 'able to offer European citizens new and better jobs'. Attaining the Lisbon target of a general employment rate of 70% by 2010 will, however, require far-reaching structural reforms. Specific priorities identified by the Presidency area include the following.

  • The Presidency states that EU labour markets need to become more flexible and that a wider availability of training programmes is required. Measures need to be adopted that will achieve a fair balance between flexibility and social security and that will allow active and preventive programmes to be put in place for unemployed people and those who are not active in the labour market, including the promotion of 'active ageing'.
  • The Presidency believes that Member States will have to make substantial reforms to their tax and insurance systems, increase incentives for employment and participation in the labour market and reduce inequalities between men and women.
  • An important measure planned by the Presidency is the launch of a 'European action for growth',and it will also give top priority to developing an integrated and efficient European transport network.
  • In terms of creating a positive environment for job creation, the Presidency states that more practical progress needs to be made towards achieving the target expenditure of 3% of GDP on investment in research in order to promote an environment which will foster the development of entrepreneurship, especially among young people. The Presidency further pledges its support for the development of activities concerning 'e-government' and ensuring mobility among students and researchers, as well as support for European research centres.
  • Another area highlighted by the Presidency is the importance of developing competitiveness as the key to achieving the growth and job creation objectives set out at Lisbon. One way in which this may be achieved is by giving support to small and medium-sized undertakings, which form the cornerstone of the European economy and constitute the main driving force for job creation. This should be achieved 'through innovative implementation of the European Charter for small enterprises and greater investment in research and innovation, aimed at such enterprises'.
  • The strength of the informal, or grey economy is a problem that is common to many European countries, albeit to varying degrees, including future Member States. The Presidency plans to organise a European seminar on this topic, which will be based on the results of a European Commission report expected during the second half of 2003. This study will measure the extent of the phenomenon, look at data on the situation in the accession countries and identify good practice. The Presidency anticipates drafting a Council Resolution based on the seminar’s conclusions.
  • The Presidency highlights the promotion of equal opportunities and plans to draw up indicators on the role of women in economic activities, with a view to their adoption in the Council. Discussions will be taken forward with a view to presenting to the European Council in December a first report on the application of the principle of equal opportunities in the Member States.
  • With regard to the problem of the maintenance of pension provision throughout Europe, the Presidency underlines that the challenge posed by an ageing population will require response at all levels, including the European and the national level. It states that social security and pensions systems need to be reformed in order to make them financially sustainable and to maintain a high level of social protection for European citizens. The Italian Presidency has already agreed with the forthcoming Irish Presidency (of the first half of 2004) that they can contribute to this process of reform by intensifying dialogue with the social partners, which have a vital role to play in implementing the guidelines set out in a European strategy.
  • The Presidency notes that the EU’s enlargement process will undoubtedly become one of the central questions of the second half of 2003, and it therefore proposes to launch a wide-ranging debate on the impact of enlargement on industrial relations, employment law and mobility.
  • The Presidency will make appropriate preparations for the closing conference of the current European Year of People with Disabilities (EU0209201N), to be held in Rome in December 2003. The integration of people with disabilities into the labour market - which is to be the subject of a special seminar, together with a prize-giving ceremony for European enterprises which have the best practices for the support of disabled people - will be one of the main subjects to be tackled during the course of the conference.
  • The Presidency proposes to draw attention to the issue of corporate social responsibility (CSR) (IT0301104F). It sees it as necessary to encourage enterprises not only to comply with social and environmental rules but to finance specific social policy programmes in order to become 'front-line players in implementing national social policies'. During the Presidency a conference is planned on the latest developments in the area of CSR, and attention will be given to: promoting the concept and comparing the various approaches to it in the Member States and candidate countries; seeking a common European structure to evaluate CSR initiatives; and increasing awareness of the opportunities offered by a common evaluation scheme.
  • With the regard to progress of pending legislation, the Presidency will support the adoption of the draft Directive on working conditions for temporary (agency) workers (EU0303203F and EU0204205F), on which no political agreement could be achieved at the June 2003 employment and social policy Council (EU0306206F). It will also: support the adoption of the Regulation amending and simplifying Regulation 1408/71 on the coordination of social security systems; and take forward negotiations over the adoption of a Directive on minimum requirements for safety and health in relation to workers’ exposure to risks due to electromagnetic fields and waves (EU0212205F and EU0210203F).

Commentary

The Italian Presidency comes at a significant time for the future development and expansion of Europe, which is facing some of the most extensive changes since the creation of the Union. In the conclusion to its programme, the Italian government sums up its approach as follows: 'The Italian Presidency will make its contribution to this difficult stage of European integration with steady realism and determination, in the certainty that the process will continue … for the benefit of future generations of Europeans.' (Beatrice Harper, IRS)

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