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Document 52009AE0048

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — Renewed social agenda: Opportunities, access and solidarity in 21st century Europe

OJ C 182, 4.8.2009, p. 65–70 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

4.8.2009   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 182/65


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — Renewed social agenda: Opportunities, access and solidarity in 21st century Europe’

COM(2008) 412 final

(2009/C 182/14)

Rapporteur: Ms REGNER

Co-rapporteur: Mr PEZZINI

On 2 July 2008 the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions Renewed social agenda: Opportunities, access and solidarity in 21st century Europe

COM(2008) 412 final.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 10 December 2008. The rapporteur was Ms REGNER, the co-rapporteur was Mr PEZZINI.

At its 450th plenary session, held on 14 and 15 January 2009 (meeting of 14 January), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 162 votes to 21, with 25 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1   The EESC welcomes the Commission communication on a renewed social agenda and, in the context of other ongoing social initiatives, considers it to be a right step towards modernisation of the European welfare state, focusing on empowering individuals to realise their potential and giving the European Union more of a social face.

1.2   In the light of the major global economic and financial crisis, it is all the more important for the European Union to promote a strong social and competitive Europe. The Committee therefore strongly advocates a genuine social policy action programme that goes beyond a renewed social agenda.

1.3   The Commission communication mainly focuses on reacting to new circumstances. In particular, it is about the adaptation of social policy to the changes in society, but most of all to changes in the economy and the labour market. Europe urgently needs modern labour market policies and strong, sustainable and employment-friendly social systems.

1.4   The EESC notes the Commission's reticence about further developing minimum standards in employment rights. In the past, these were the backbone of European social policy and of improving living and working conditions, and should, where necessary and appropriate, remain part of any social agenda in the future.

1.5   The EESC considers that social dialogue remains one of the most important pillars of the European social model — at both national and European level. The social partners play a key role concerning all issues of social change and should therefore be involved in the drafting, implementation and monitoring of all measures under the renewed social agenda. Civil dialogue will in future be another supporting pillar.

1.6   The Open Method of Coordination should be strengthened, in particular through the increased use of quantitative and qualitative targets. The EESC also recommends greater involvement of the European Parliament in this, as well as a requirement to take account of social goals and/or guidelines in the context of public procurement.

1.7   The EESC considers that — in close cooperation with the social partners — the EU should support Member States in adapting, harmonising and monitoring the common flexicurity principles. The EESC therefore calls for a stronger link between the flexicurity debate and the expansion of social dialogue at all levels and collective bargaining at the various levels.

1.8   Community actions to promote equal treatment, to support people with disabilities, to combat social exclusion, and to promote active inclusion should, in the Committee's view, be complemented with stronger policy measures aimed at the employment of older people, disadvantaged sections of the population and the unemployed. Combating poverty must also be a priority.

1.9   The EESC considers it necessary to respond appropriately to the current ECJ rulings in connection with the posting of workers and trade union activities. The discussion forum convened by the Commission is a first step. In particular, various alternatives should be suggested for resolving the tension between the freedoms of the internal market on the one hand and fundamental rights on the other. Where necessary and appropriate, suitable concrete measures to protect workers should be adopted as soon as possible, in which it is made clear that neither economic freedoms nor competition rules take precedence over fundamental social rights.

1.10   Given the fears in many parts of the European population that access to high-quality healthcare will no longer be guaranteed for many in 20 years' time (1), appropriate, clear and transparent goals should be developed and pursued with appropriate monitoring and publicity.

1.11   As well as providing new opportunities and increasing economic growth and competitiveness, migration also has its dark sides. In future, the Commission should also deal with these negative aspects and come up with ways of mitigating them.

1.12   The EESC agrees with the Commission that the application and implementation of existing laws is very important. Mere appeals to the Member States are not sufficient in this context, particularly as regards the directive on the posting of workers. In this context, a high priority must be given to putting in place effective measures for the enforcement of cross-border matters. The Committee also welcomes the Commission's call upon all Member States to set an example by ratifying and implementing the ILO Conventions classified by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as up to date.

2.   The Commission’s proposal

2.1   On 2 July 2008 the European Commission published a communication on a renewed social agenda (2). In that communication, it notes that new social realities require new solutions. It goes on to say that the pace of change is fast, and that policies must keep pace with this and respond innovatively and flexibly to the challenges of globalisation, technological progress and demographic change.

2.2   The Commission explains that the scope for action is very broad and that it is therefore appropriate to set priorities. The agenda therefore focuses on a number of key areas where EU action demonstrates clear added value and full respect for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.

Children and Youth — tomorrow's Europe

Investing in People, More and Better Jobs, New Skills

Mobility

Longer and healthier lives

Combating poverty and social exclusion

Fighting discrimination

Opportunities, Access and Solidarity on the Global Scene.

2.3   Actions in each of these areas contribute to the agenda's three goals of opportunities, access and solidarity.

2.4   According to the Commission, the Social Reality Stocktaking has confirmed that citizens and stakeholders expect the EU to bring European added value to social development.

2.5   The Commission intends to continue use the instruments in the EC Treaty (legislation, social dialogue, the Community method, the Open Method of Coordination, EU funding, involvement of civil society) and by exploiting the scope for synergies between them in a comprehensive approach and a ‘smarter mix’ of policy tools. The coordination and surveillance of economic and budgetary policies also play an important role in this respect.

3.   General comments:

3.1   In the renewed social agenda, the Commission states that EU policies already have a strong social dimension and positive social impact. The EESC certainly agrees that the EU should have a strong social dimension and positive social impact, especially at a time of financial crisis affecting the proverbial global village. This financial crisis is leading to an economic crisis, and there are signs of recession in the economies of the EU Member States. This in turn means difficulties for businesses and hard times for workers and for society as a whole. Despite that fact that social policy is largely a matter for the governments of Member States, the Committee welcomes the initiatives that the Commission has taken since 2007 with the Social Reality Stocktaking and now with the publication of the renewed social agenda. The EESC believes that a common strategy will help to alleviate fears about future prosperity. However, a much stronger social message needs to be directed to the European public.

3.2   It is also considered fundamentally positive that the agenda is not limited to the traditional areas of social policy, but also covers other areas such as education, health and intercultural dialogue.

3.3   However, a ‘traditional’ Community approach — albeit renewed and extended to other areas — is not, in the Committee's view, sufficient in the present circumstances. However, the issue of the fundamental direction of macroeconomic policy must not be excluded, lest key aspects of decision-making continue to be left with no social dimension to speak of.

3.4   The Committee takes the view that a genuine social action programme should be one expression of Europe's social dimension. A renewed social agenda alone is not sufficient. The action programme should be based upon positive cooperation between the Member States, not on a competitive ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of social rights, social protection and working conditions (3). It must concentrate on those aspects that bring results in terms of improved living and working conditions, strengthening social security systems whilst ensuring that they are sustainable and promote employment, greater competitiveness, an enhanced ability of businesses and workers to adapt, and more and better jobs.

3.5   Firm action is needed on social objectives. A reactive position, taking the view that it is the job of social policy to respond to changes and to adapt people to the new requirements of the economy, does not go far enough. People and investment in people must be at the centre, improving living and working conditions must be the aim, and clear, effective and binding instruments must form the backbone of any European social policy.

3.6   Particularly in the light of the current crisis, we must not lose sight of the fact that the whole of society shares responsibility for the welfare of the individual. In particular, this includes a fair distribution of income, sufficient employment opportunities in competitive businesses, social protection against risks such as illness, invalidity, unemployment, old age, support for families, educational opportunities for all, protection from poverty and high-quality, affordable services of general interest.

3.7   There is no conflict between a dynamic economy and social progress; rather, they are mutually conducive. A social market economy combines competitiveness with social justice. It is important that social affairs, the economy and the environment be given equal weight.

4.   Objectives and priorities

4.1   The EESC considers that — in close cooperation with the social partners — it is sensible and necessary that the EU should support Member States in adapting, harmonising and monitoring the common flexicurity principles. The main priority should be to help people and to improve their living and working conditions. Particular attention should be paid to social aspects. The Commission and the Member States should make every effort to link the discussions on possible reforms to a strengthening and modernisation of employment relationships at every level. The EESC therefore calls for a stronger link between the flexicurity debate and the expansion of social dialogue at all levels and collective bargaining at the various levels. The concept of flexicurity should ensure the balanced promotion of both flexibility and security. The idea of flexicurity is not to bring about a one-sided, unjustified erosion of workers' rights; the EESC rejects this (4).

4.2   Young job seekers in particular face significant difficulties in access to employment. The ‘work experience generation’ is often welcomed into the labour market with atypical forms of work which in some cases could lead to precarious employment arrangements (5). Measures for active integration and support for lifelong learning are to be explicitly welcomed. Quality and secure jobs are closely linked with a good, broad education. However, beyond this, the European Union and the Member States in particular must develop a policy mix that better matches skills and qualifications on the one hand with the needs of businesses on the other. The aim should be higher employability of school leavers and graduates. A better environment for businesses, enabling them to create high-quality jobs, should also be created. In addition, steps should be taken to avoid precarious employment. On the eve of the evaluation of the European Youth Pact (2005), it is high time to take action.

4.3   A Community initiative to promote high-quality jobs for young people would also be useful. The aim of this should be to ensure, with the active support of the social partners, that university and school leavers' quality and achievements are appreciated. To achieve this, a new contact point should be set up under the JASMINE microcredits (6) scheme.

4.4   The EESC considers the promotion of entrepreneurial activity, entrepreneurship training and the support for financial education in the EU to be important. Entrepreneurship in its broadest sense, which can stimulate and encourage innovative and creative mindsets, should be highlighted in the Lisbon Agenda as one of the key tools to generate more growth and better jobs as well as to achieve social cohesion and combat social exclusion (7).

4.5   Under the Employment Strategy and the Open Method of Coordination, much more ambitious, effective and measurable goals should be set, with more enforcement powers for the Commission. The focus should once again be on quantitative European targets, in particular in the fields of activation, education and life-long learning, youth employment, access to high-quality healthcare and gender equality (8).

4.6   When supporting lifelong learning, the educational policy paradox — i.e. the fact that less qualified people are at a disadvantage when it comes to further training — should receive particular attention.

4.7   Combating long-term and youth unemployment, promoting gender equality and a higher employment rate among women, strengthening the Community programme for employment and social solidarity — Progress 2007-2013 (9) — particularly with the aim of increasing the capacity of the Union's most important networks for promoting and supporting Community policies and introducing progressive instruments for assessing needs and prospects, using a participatory bottom-up approach.

4.8   The environment for social dialogue must be improved. In this context, the Committee notes that the optional framework for transnational collective bargaining under the Agenda 2005 (10) social policy agenda has yet to be set up.

4.9   The EESC agrees with the Commission that it is important that there be a rapid and positive political agreement on the proposals for directives on working time (11) and on temporary agency work (12), To that extent, the EESC welcomes the adoption of the directive on temporary workers by the Council.

4.10   Several recent rulings of the European Court of Justice (Laval (13), Viking (14) and Rüffert (15) cases) have clearly shown up the tension between the rights relating to the single market on the one hand and fundamental rights — particularly union rights — on the other, and have raised fundamental questions. Appropriate action is therefore needed. The discussion forum convened by the Commission is a first step. The Commission should now carry out a thorough assessment of the internal market on workers' rights and collective bargaining. Where necessary and appropriate, suitable concrete measures to protect workers should be adopted as soon as possible in which it is made clear that neither economic freedoms nor competition rules take precedence over fundamental social rights.

4.11   The mobility of people is a rich source of opportunities and helps to boost economic growth and competitiveness. The Committee considers that, alongside these positive aspects, the negative aspects of mobility should be looked at, particularly in connection with large waves of migration. In particular, one thinks of the social impact, such as the social and family situation of migrants and their families, social dumping (particularly in connection with illegal employment), the welfare of migrants, and possible effects on the labour market. Furthermore, the medium and long term impact on the education system in the country of origin and the brain drain (16) should be looked at. The results should then form the basis for measures to mitigate such effects.

4.12   The EESC welcomes the Commission's wish to facilitate the development of good quality, accessible and sustainable social services. However, it stresses that the general interest in these services must take precedence over internal market and competition rules. What is certainly needed is a clarification of the relevant concepts and rules. The Committee therefore proposes a multi-faceted and gradual approach, combining the sector-specific and issue-specific aspects, which would lead to the adoption of legislative initiatives where required and/or to these principles and conditions being adapted to the different sectors concerned (the cross-cutting, sector-specific approach) (17).

4.13   Given the fears in many parts of the European population that access to high-quality healthcare will no longer be guaranteed for many in 20 years' time (18), appropriate, clear and transparent goals should be developed and pursued with appropriate monitoring and publicity.

4.14   Talking about ‘a strong social reflex’ (19), particularly in the context of rules on public procurement, is somewhat bold in the light of the ECJ ruling in the Rüffert case. It is also important not to overlook the fact that the European directives on public procurement mainly, and the reality of public procurement procedures almost exclusively, reflect economic aspects. If they are to take proper account of social aspects, public contracting authorities need a clear and binding framework. Moreover, public procurement would have a social face if it were not only able but also required by law to take account of certain social aspects. The EESC therefore believes that it would make sense for the Commission to make concrete proposals in this direction. For example, social requirements based on European guidelines could be brought in to play so as to make better use of the potential of the Open Method of Coordination.

4.15   In its opinion on the Working Time Directive (20), the EESC has already expressed regret that the European Union was missing an opportunity if it did not take the reconciliation of private and professional life into account. The EESC therefore expressly welcomes the results of the Commission's consultations with the social partners on the reconciliation of private and professional life, and the recently-published proposals for improving conditions on maternity leave (21) and enhanced rights for women engaged in an activity in a self-employed capacity (22). The Committee also welcomes the fact that the European social partners are reviewing the directive on parental leave.

4.16   Community actions to promote equal treatment, to support people with disabilities, to combat social exclusion, and to promote active inclusion should, in the Committee's view, be complemented with stronger policy measures aimed at the employment of older people, disadvantaged sections of the population and the unemployed. Combating poverty must also be a priority, with a particular focus on women and single parents. At the same time, the policy measures aimed at balanced integration of immigrants should be beefed up. Through its Labour Market Observatory, the EESC can make an active contribution to these analyses.

5.   Instruments

5.1   In recent decades, the EU has put in place minimum standards in the areas of gender equality and non-discrimination, as well as some areas of working conditions and collective defence of workers' rights. This legislation is a significant part of European social policy. Although there has been some progress, much room for further improvement remains.

5.2   The EESC advocates the use of the entire range of social policy instruments (legislation, Open Method of Coordination, autonomous agreements between social partners) and calls for the most appropriate instrument to be used in each area. The fact is that some areas have not yet been dealt with at all at European level, such as sick pay, the definition of the status of employee, or transfer protection; other areas are only partly covered, such as the reconciliation of work and family life and protection from dismissal.

5.3   Undoubtedly, the effective transposition, application and implementation of existing laws is important. In this respect, the EESC agrees with the Commission. It is also important that, when implementing minimum standards, these be seen as a springboard for the improvement of living and working conditions on the ground, and not as the end in themselves. Proper implementation requires effective and appropriate instruments, and, in particular, support for cross-border matters. This is especially true for the transposition and application of the directive on the posting of workers (23). Simply calling for cooperation is not sufficient in this context. Instead, a Europe-wide, binding framework needs to be created. In this context, a high priority must be given to putting in place effective measures for the enforcement of cross-border matters.

5.4   Cross-sectoral, sectoral and cross-border social dialogue remains one of the main pillars of the social model in Member States and at EU level. Employers and trade unions play a key role in addressing social challenges, as they are strong driving forces for the achievement of economic and social progress (24).

5.5   Civil dialogue — to be clearly distinguished from social dialogue — will be another main pillar in the future. To engage citizens and their organisations at all levels to build social Europe will be a real challenge (25).

5.6   The EESC shares the Commission's view that the potential of the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) should be developed and that both quantitative and qualitative targets should be used. The EESC emphasises that the Open Method of Coordination should ‘go more local’, thereby reflecting the participatory bottom-up approach and the necessary coordination of partners and policies (26). However, it is further recommended that the European Parliament should be more closely involved in the OMC, thus increasing its democratic legitimacy.

5.7   The development of targets for the well-being of citizens that go beyond the usual indicator of GDP per capita is welcomed, and may help to offset the economics-dominated ways of looking at countries' economic achievements (27).

Brussels, 14 January 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI


(1)  See ‘Expectations of European citizens regarding the social reality in 20 years’ time’, Analytic Report, May 2008, point 2.9; Flash Eurobarometer Series #227.

(2)  COM(2008) 412 final; Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions Renewed social agenda: Opportunities, access and solidarity in 21st century Europe.

(3)  EESC opinion of on A new European Social Action Programme, Rapporteur: Mr OLSSON (OJ C 27, 3.2.2009), point 4.1, p. 99.

(4)  See EESC opinion on Flexicurity (collective bargaining and the role of social dialogue), rapporteur: Mr JANSON, OJ C 256, 27.10.2007, point 1.4, p. 108.

(5)  On this subject, see the package of measures proposed by the EESC aimed at giving young people future prospects beyond insecure employment. In: Own-initiative opinion on Employment of priority categories, 12 July 2007, Rapporteur: Mr GREIF; Chapter 5: Effective combating of youth unemployment, OJ C 256, 27.10.2007, p. 93.

(6)  See opinion CESE on Microcredits (Rapporteur: Mr PEZZINI) OJ C 77, 31.3.2009, p. 23.

(7)  See EESC opinion on Entrepreneurship mindsets and the Lisbon Agenda (Rapporteur: Ms SHARMA; co-rapporteur: Mr OLSSON, OJ C 44, 16.2.2008, point 1.1, p. 84.

(8)  See opinion CESE on the Employment Guidelines (Rapporteur: Mr GREIF, OJ C 162, 25.6.2008, point 2.1 p. 92.

(9)  Decision No 1672/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 2006 establishing a Community Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity — Progress (OJ L 315, 15.11.2006).

(10)  Communication from the Commission of 9 February2005 on the Social Agenda, COM (2005) 33 final.

(11)  Amended proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 2003/88/EC concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time; COM(2005) 246 final.

(12)  Amended proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and the Council on working conditions for temporary workers; COM(2002) 701 final.

(13)  ECJ case C-341/05: Laval un Partneri Ltd v Svenska Byggnadsarbetareförbundet (Swedish building workers' union).

(14)  ECJ case C-438/05: International Transport Workers' Federation et al v Viking Line ABP et al.

(15)  ECJ case C-346/06: Dirk Rüffert in his capacity as liquidator of the assets of Objekt und Bauregie GmbH & Co. KG v Land Niedersachsen.

(16)  i.e. the emigration of highly skilled or talented people from a country.

(17)  See EESC opinion on A single market for 21st century Europe, Rapporteur: Mr Cassidy; co-rapporteurs: Mr HENCKS and Mr CAPPELLINI, OJ C 77, 31.3.2009, p. 15, points 1.13 and 1.15.

(18)  See ‘Expectations of European citizens regarding the social reality in 20 years’ time’, Analytic Report, May 2008, Point 2.9.; Flash Eurobarometer Series #227; Survey conducted by The Gallup Organization Hungary upon the request of Directorate-General Employment.

(19)  COM(2008) 412 final, point 5.6.

(20)  See EESC opinion on the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 2003/88/EC concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time (Rapporteur: Ms ENGELEN-KEFER) (OJ C 267, 27.10.2005, p. 16).

(21)  Proposal amending Council Directive 92/85/EEC of 3 October 2008, COM(2008) 600/4.

(22)  Proposal for a Directive on the application of the principle of equal treatment between men and women engaged in an activity in a self-employed capacity and repealing Directive 86/613/EEC, COM(2008) 636 final.

(23)  Directive 96/71/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 1996 concerning the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services, OJ L 018, 21.1.1997.

(24)  See EESC opinion of 9 July 2008 on A new European Social Action Programme, Rapporteur: Mr OLSSON (OJ C 27, 3.2.2009, p. 99, point 5.6.

(25)  See EESC opinion of 9 July2008 on A new European Social Action Programme, Rapporteur: Mr OLSSON (OJ C 27, 3.2.2009, p. 99, point 5.7.

(26)  See EESC opinion of 9 July2008 on A new European Social Action Programme, Rapporteur: Mr OLSSON (OJ C 27, 3.2.2009, p. 99, point 7.9.3.

(27)  See EESC opinion of 9 July2008 on A new European Social Action Programme, Rapporteur: Mr OLSSON (OJ C 27, 3.2.2009, p. 99, point 7.9.2.


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