Employment Summit: Belgium demands quantifiable employment objectives

In preparation for the special EU "Employment Summit" in Luxembourg in November 1997, the Belgian Government and social partners organised a conference which resulted in a number of different points of view. There was, however, unanimity on one issue: the Summit had to produce realistic and quantifiable employment objectives for the partners of the EU.

The Luxembourg Presidency of the European Union organised a special Employment Summit European Council meeting on 20-21 November 1997 (EU9711168F). In order to prepare for the event, the Belgian Government and social partners organised a conference aimed at formulating the point of view of the Government and the social partners with respect to the four priorities proposed by the European Commission for discussion at the Summit in Luxembourg, as follows.

  1. Stimulating entrepreneurship. Europe needs a new entrepreneurial culture and it has to become easier to start a new company. One of the keys ought to be a tax system which is more conducive to employment creation.
  2. Increasing employability. The qualification gap on the labour market has to be narrowed through policies to modernise education and training programmes and better links between education and working practices. Within this framework, Member States are encouraged to:
    • search for solutions for the long-term unemployed and youth unemployment:
    • facilitate the transition from education to working life; and
    • change the system of unemployment benefits from a passive income supplement to a kind of wage or hiring subsidy.
  3. Improving the adaptability of businesses. To encourage adaptability, modernisation of work organisation is necessary through more flexible employment practices. Businesses also need more fiscal incentives to invest in the quality and training of their employees.
  4. Promoting equal opportunities for women and men. More specific job opportunities for women have to be created. Also, the combination of one's working and family life has to be facilitated. In addition, it should be easier to re-enter the job market after a period of absence.

Belgian angle

The Belgian Government, represented by the Minister for Employment and Labour, Miet Smet, and Prime Minister Jean Luc Dehaene, confirmed their support for these priorities at the preparatory conference. However, they added their own Belgian angle in two important comments.

  1. The social partners have clear responsibilities within the framework of EU employment policy. However, they must have the structural and institutional support to carry out their tasks, which has not been fully the case so far.
  2. "Increased productivity and competitiveness of businesses" ought not to be the sole sacrosanct purpose of improved adaptability as proposed by the European Commission. In addition to negotiations concerning different forms of work organisation and flexible working time, attention needs to be focused on the redistribution of total employment over more workers.

The Belgian trade unions formulated together the following four priorities for the Luxembourg Summit:

  1. reinstatement of employment in an integrated approach to economic policy;
  2. implementation of the proposals for a more employment-friendly tax policy;
  3. promotion of an active employment policy through the formulation of specific and quantifiable objectives; and
  4. integration of the social partners as closely as possible into the policy-making process on employment.

Both the principal Belgian union confederations emphasise the need to create an independent EU employment policy. Such an EU policy cannot be limited to the coordination of the Member States' national policies. The subsidiarity principle cannot be an excuse for escaping EU responsibility or it would institutionalise "Eurosclerosis" in the field of employment policy. In addition, employment policies ought not further reinforce the deregulation and flexibilisation of working conditions.

Both confederations also advocate the formulation of an EU "pact for economic coordination and employment" as a counterweight to the "pact for stability and economic growth". Such a pact for economic coordination and employment has to include quantifiable, controllable and monitored goals on a number of issues including:

  • the introduction of a right to lifelong learning opportunities for all employees, including part-time workers;
  • guarantees of work or training after a minimal period of unemployment;
  • the stimulation of an active labour market policy;
  • the introduction of a considerable reduction in working time; and
  • the reduction of indirect employment costs. This decrease has to be linked to employment creation and alternative financing of public spending by means of fiscal sources other than those based on labour.

The Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises Belges/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen,FEB/VBO), represented by its president Karel Boone, also supported the idea of alternative fiscal policies as long as they do not limit economic activity and growth. He also supported the idea of "a menu of realistic and quantifiable employment proposals". Moreover, he claimed, this type of objective is necessary to create the necessary policy dynamics.

Belgian best practice

Much attention at the Summit will be devoted to the analysis of best practice across the different Member States in relation to employment policy. Special attention will be focused in particular on those "best practices" which implement the employment priorities formulated by the EU. Belgium will be presenting four best practice methods.

  1. Employment agreements on moderate pay increases and work redistribution. Different sectors are encouraged by the terms of these agreements to negotiate collective agreements which include at least two specific methods of work redistribution (such as leave, phased introduction of early retirement, part-time work and working time reductions) in exchange for lower employers' social security contributions (reduced by BEF 150,000 per year per newly-hired employee). The Government, as the country's largest employer, is setting the pace by offering specific opportunities for the phased introduction of early retirement and four-day working weeks on a voluntary basis.
  2. Positive use of unemployment benefit. A new Belgian initiative is the creation of local employment agencies which provide long-term unemployed people with the chance to supplement their unemployment benefit financially by performing tasks which fall outside the normal economic circuit but which nevertheless answer local social needs and create "sheltered" working opportunities (BE9708213F). The measures also apply to younger unemployed people who have not found employment for over nine months. Their unemployment benefits are used as a labour cost subsidy for employers who offer the first work experience to these youngsters.
  3. Regulation of career breaks. Since 1985 the framework has existed to allow employees to take a career break to allow them to study or to raise children. They receive financial compensation during this period. Since 1 January 1997, career breaks have been a right for a maximum of 1% of the employees in any business (this number is higher in certain sectors, under the terms of sectoral agreements). Employees have a right to a maximum of five years' full-time leave and five years' part-time leave. In the public sector, the right to leave is across the board.
  4. Diverse recruitment subsidies. Noteworthy are a number of measures, including low employment costs for recruiting those unemployed people with few qualifications and the "one-two-three plan" which encourages small business to hire a first, second and third employee at reduced employment costs.


Prime Minister Dehaene, who can be described as a "political realist", has cautioned against high expectations for the Luxembourg Summit. A moderate convergence in policy objectives and instruments is all there is to be expected as a political result. Given previous experiences with EU employment policy initiatives (such as the Delors employment plan) this is probably the right attitude to enter the negotiations.

However, the Belgian unions have mobilised their activists to stress their demands for a more balanced social dimension across the EU. Thousands of members participated in a demonstration in Luxembourg on the eve of the Summit, demanding EU policies in support of more employment.

Only time will tell whether a viable and modernised European labour market can be created in which both social partners play a cooperative role. (Peter Vanderhallen, WAV)

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