Employment and Social Policy Council discusses economic guidelines and anti-discrimination package

The EU Employment and Social Policy Council met on 8 May 2000 to discuss the drafting of the EU's broad economic policy guidelines, as required by the conclusions of the March Lisbon European Council. It also discussed the progress of the Commission's package of anti-discrimination proposals, with the Presidency expressing optimism that the draft Directive on discrimination on the basis of race and ethnic origin could be adopted soon.

The Employment and Social Policy Council of Ministers– which is the new title for the Labour and Social Affairs Council, following a decision of the General Affairs Council of 10 April 2000 – met in Brussels on 8 May 2000 under the Portuguese Presidency to hold a first discussion on the drafting of the EU's broad economic policy guidelines for 2001.

Impetus from Lisbon summit

The Employment and Social Policy Council's contribution to the development of the annual broad economic policy guidelines is required by the conclusions of Lisbon European Council held on 23-24 March 2000 (EU0004241F).

The conclusions state that the European Council will devote a meeting each spring to discuss economic and social questions. While the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) will have primary responsibility for developing the agenda for such Council meetings, the Employment and Social Policy Council will have an important role to play in feeding its concerns into this agenda.

For 2000, the Employment and Social Policy Council can have little input with regard to the final text of the broad economic policy guidelines because Ecofin was due to approve the guidelines at its next session on 5 June before forwarding them for political agreement to the European Council meeting in Santa Maria da Feira on 19–20 June. However, from 2001, the guidelines will be developed by Ecofin together with input from the Employment and Social Policy Council and consideration of the conclusions of the annual spring European Council on economic and social affairs.

Debate on economic guidelines

At the 8 May Employment and Social Policy Council meeting, Ministers praised the progress made at the Lisbon Council and welcomed the opportunity to develop a coherent strategy to link economic and social policies. The debate focused on the opinion issued by the Employment Committee (formerly the Employment and Labour Market Committee) – this opinion was adopted unanimously by the Committee on 13 April and 2 May 2000. The opinion centres on areas such as:

  • restructuring public finances;
  • investing in human resources;
  • encouraging life-long learning;
  • increasing the percentage of women in the workforce;
  • reforming tax and social security systems;
  • developing legislation to protect employment; and
  • achieving full employment.

Ministers agreed that this opinion would provide a sound basis on which to build the Council's contribution to the development of the broad economic policy guidelines in the future.

The Council debate then turned to three further issues raised by the Presidency:

  • ensuring coherence between the European Commission's recommendation on the broad economic policy guidelines and the conclusions of the Lisbon Council;
  • ensuring compatibility between the broad economic policy guidelines relating to labour market issues and the recommendations addressed to Member States for 2000 within the framework of the European employment strategy's "Luxembourg process" (EU9909187F); and
  • the means by which the Employment and Social Policy Council can help draft the broad economic policy guidelines.

The Council concluded that improved coherence between the broad economic policy guidelines and the European employment strategy under the Luxembourg process should be a priority. Ministers also stated their concern that the Employment and Social Policy Council should be actively involved prior to the development of future broad guidelines. The Council also expressed its desire to see the broad economic policy guidelines include measures which focus on:

  • promoting active employment policies to achieve full employment;
  • improving social cohesion; and
  • encouraging life-long learning.

The Presidency of the Employment and Social Policy Council was to forward these conclusions and the Employment Committee's opinion to the Ecofin President and the President of the European Council.

Anti-discrimination package

Following an oral report from the Presidency, the Council took note of the progress made on the Commission's "anti-discrimination package" (EU9912218F) since the previous Council meeting of 13 March 2000 (EU0003235F). The package of proposed measures is based on Article 13 of the Treaty establishing the European Community and consists of:

The Presidency underlined its commitment to giving priority to the advancement of these measures and stated that as a result of preliminary work, the Council should be in a position to reach political agreement on at least one of these measures – the draft Directive to combat discrimination on race and ethnic origin – at its next meeting on 6 June 2000.

However, the Presidency highlighted difficulties with the adoption of the full package of measures because the draft Directives contain complex legal notions which are new for some Member States and which therefore necessitate further consideration before an in-depth discussion can be held in Council. In particular, certain issues that have not yet been resolved include:

  • the applicability of the measures to citizens of non-Member States;
  • the definition of "indirect discrimination";
  • the definition of harassment; and
  • the reversal of the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the accused.

Parliamentary vote

As the Treaty base for the anti-discrimination measures is Article 13, they will progress under the consultation procedure, whereby the European Parliament gives European Commission proposals a single reading and issues an Opinion. Any amendments suggested by Parliament are then considered by the Commission (although it is under no obligation to include any amendments) before it sends its final proposals to Council, which must then adopt them on the basis of unanimity.

The European Parliament voted on the draft race and ethnic origin Directive on 18 May 2000 and was overwhelmingly in favour, with 179 votes for and 48 votes against. Parliament voted to amend the Commission's original proposals in certain areas and the Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Anna Diamantopoulou, said that the challenge now was to find the right balance between what was "desirable" and "achievable" in the sense of getting the legislation through Council.

The Council will therefore be in a position to decide whether it can proceed swiftly to reach political agreement when it has received the Commission's final proposals.

A new agenda

Commissioner Diamontopoulou, who was present at the May Council meeting, stated: "Today we have a new economic and political agenda for Europe. Each spring we will have a summit that will supervise the economic and social policy. This means that the Employment and Social Policy Council will have a new role to play and will participate actively."

Ms Diamontopoulou also announced that the Commission will issue several initiatives in 2000, which will form the basis of its participation in the preparation for the 2001 spring economic and social policy summit. These are:

  • an action programme on equal opportunities, to be issued at the end of May;
  • a "new social agenda", on 21 June;
  • a communication on social integration, at the end of June;
  • an "employment" package, consisting of the draft joint report on employment 2000 and 2001 Employment Guidelines in September; and
  • a communication on social protection, retirement and pensions in September.

Commentary

The involvement of the Employment and Social Policy Council in the development of the broad economic policy guidelines signals a positive step towards the establishment of a more coherent strategy for the European labour market. It marks a concrete recognition that employment and social policy concerns must form part of an integrated approach to achieve the employment, social and economic reform goals set out at the Lisbon summit.

Of arguably more immediate importance is the progress made on the anti-discrimination package. Following the vote in the European Parliament, it appears that the Council may be in a position to reach political agreement on the draft Directive to combat discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnic origin in employment, education, access to goods and services and social security. Council agreement in this area would send out a clear signal of intolerance towards racially-motivated discrimination and would be welcomed as a step towards tackling a problem which is prevalent in many Member States.

It is now a matter of waiting to see what form the Commission's final proposals will take and whether the Council can reach a unanimous agreement (Neil Bentley, IRS).

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