Commission issues five-year social agenda

In February 2005 the European Commission issued its social policy plans for the coming five years. Key proposals include the establishment of a European gender institute, a Green Paper on new forms of work, a second round of social partner consultations on restructuring, an initiative on the establishment of a voluntary framework for transnational collective bargaining and an initiative on data protection for workers.

The new European Commission took office in November 2004 for a term of five years (EU0408203F). On 9 February 2005, it issued its plans for the coming five years in the form of a social agenda.

The first part of the agenda focuses on how to strengthen the confidence of the European Union’s citizens, seen as essential for managing change and promoting economic growth. The second presents a range of proposed measures, under two main headings:

  • employment; and
  • fighting poverty and promoting equal opportunities.

The Commission states that it aims to modernise the 'European social model', improve collective capacity to act and offer new chances to all citizens. It believes that the main challenges faced by Europe over the coming years are: the low rate of employment; unemployment; poverty, inequality; and discrimination. The social agenda sets out actions aimed at helping face up to these problems.

An intergenerational approach

At some point during 2005, the Commission will issue a Green Paper on the 'intergenerational dimension', analysing the demographic changes in European populations and their consequences. It states that there is a need to adapt systems of social protection and pensions to these changes and to link this to the question of migration. The Commission issued a Communication on managing economic migration to the EU in January 2005 (EU0501208F).

Creating partnerships

The Commission believes that it is vital to the success of European policies to create a partnership between the authorities, the social partners and civil society. It is proposing to set up an annual meeting of all relevant parties to evaluate the implementation of the social affairs agenda.

External policies

The Commission seeks ways of benefiting from the exchange of experience between the EU and other countries and with international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN), in addition to those involved in economic governance, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The Commission states that it will set up an interdepartmental group to promote consideration of the external dimension of employment, social policy and decent work. It will also incorporate the European social model into external dialogue and measures at bilateral, regional and multilateral level and promote 'decent work' as a global objective at all levels.

Employment

The Commission sets out its objectives in the area of employment as: achieving full employment; making work a real option for all; increasing the quality and productivity of work; and anticipating and managing change. The employment goals link in with the goals of EU's European employment strategy and Lisbon strategy (EU0004241F), which is currently undergoing a mid-term review process (EU0501201N).

Stating that the EU must be capable of anticipating, triggering and managing economic change more effectively, the social agenda states that the Commission will develop a strategy around four themes:

  • greater interplay between European policies designed to encourage and accompany restructuring. To this end, it will set up a high-level forum of all relevant players and stakeholders;
  • greater involvement of the social partners. The Commission will carry out a second phase of consultation of the social partners on the issues of restructuring - the first was carried out in January 2002 (EU0201235F) and resulted in a joint social partner text on orientations for managing change, signed in October 2003 (EU0307203F) - and review of the European Works Councils Directive (EU0405203F);
  • greater 'synergy' between policies and their 'financial levers'; and
  • a stronger link between the European employment strategy and the development of the legal framework and social partner agreements.

New work patterns

The Commission will issue a Green Paper on the development of labour law, in which it will analyse current trends in new work patterns and the role of labour law in tackling these developments. The discussion that this document will produce could lead to proposals for a range of measures to modernise and simplify the current rules.

Data protection

The Commission will propose, during 2005, an initiative on the protection of the personal data of workers. This follows a social partner consultation on this issue, undertaken in August 2001 and a second consultation in October 2002 (EU0211206F).

Updating of legislation

The Commission intends to update the Directives on transfers of undertakings (2001/23/EC) and collective redundancies (98/59/EC). It will also consolidate the various existing provisions on worker information and consultation.

Health and safety

The Commission will formulate and issue a new health and safety at work strategy, replacing the current strategy when it expires in 2006 (EU0204203N). The new strategy will run from 2007 to 2012. The new strategy will focus on new and emerging risks and safeguarding minimum levels of protection in the workplace and for workers who are not adequately covered. It will pay particular attention to the quality of prevention services, health and safety training, and other tools to ensure better application of health and safety standards.

Social dialogue

The Commission will continue to promote the European social dialogue process at cross-industry and sectoral level, in particular by strengthening its logistic and technical support and by conducting consultations on the basis of Article 138 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, which provides the basis for social partner consultations in the area of social policy.

Corporate social responsibility

The Commission will continue to promote corporate social responsibility (CSR) and, in cooperation with the Member States and the parties involved, will put forward initiatives designed to further enhance the development and transparency of CSR (EU0407205F). A new Communication on CSR will be published in March 2005.

Transnational collective bargaining framework

The Commission is planning to issue a proposal 'designed to make it possible for the social partners to formalise the nature and results of transnational collective bargaining'. It stresses that the use of this would be optional and will 'depend entirely on the will of the social partners'. It states that this framework for transnational bargaining could be used either at enterprise or sectoral level and could help companies and sectors to handle issues such as work organisation, employment, working conditions and training. It states that this would give the social partners a basis for increasing their capacity to act at transnational level, providing an innovative tool to adapt to changing circumstances.

Mobility of workers

In 2005, the Commission will set up a high-level group made up of representatives from all the Member States to assess the impact of EU enlargement on mobility and how the transitional periods for labour market access agreed for the most recent enlargement exercises are working. It will then draw up a report for the Council in early 2006. The Commission also aims to conduct studies on the permanent monitoring of migratory movements following EU enlargement and also in view of future enlargement exercises.

Diversity and non-discrimination

The Commission will issue a Communication in 2005 on equality and non-discrimination, following its 2004 Green Paper on this subject (EU0407203N), to which it has received more than 1,500 responses (EU0412203N). This Communication will set out the Commission’s planned policy approach to this area, look at the feasibility and relevance of any new initiatives to supplement existing law, and examine the question of minorities, in particular Roma people (EU0412204N).

In addition, the Commission will organise a European year of equal opportunities in 2007 and issue a Communication on future policy developments in the area of gender equality, following on from the current framework strategy, which comes to an end in 2005 (EU0007264F). It will also propose the establishment of a 'European gender institute', as called for by the June 2004 European Council summit (EU0406204F). It is envisaged that this body will be a clearing-house for information and exchanges of good practices. The Commission will also publish a report on the situation on people with disabilities every two years.

Commentary

The new social agenda sets out all of the Commission’s planned initiatives in the social policy field over the coming five years and contains a range of interesting proposals. One key focus is employment, including how to create more confidence among EU citizens, raise employment levels and improve the quality it work. In addition, it is clear that the Commission wants to examine the issue of restructuring further, by means of consulting the EU-level social partners a second time, despite the fact that they concluded a joint text on this issue in 2003. It also wants to give companies the option of putting into place a transnational level of bargaining, by creating a voluntary framework for this.

In terms of new proposals, we can expect an initiative on data protection and possibly some new initiatives in the areas of new forms of work, depending on the response to the Green Paper on this issue that the Commission intends to publish in 2005. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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