Select Committee on European Union Twentieth Report


20. The Social Policy Agenda, published on 28 June 2000, is a Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. As a Communication it has no legal force—it is a consultation document, setting out a plan of action for the coming five years. Any specific proposals for action or for legislation that emerge out of the consultation will have to be scrutinised and justified separately. On the other hand, it is still a document of great potential significance: if the Agenda is agreed by the European Council at Nice in December one can expect the Commission quickly to bring forward many of the proposals it describes. The Report of the European Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee was debated on 23 October and approved two days later[20]. However, agreement to the plan of action contained in the Agenda will be given by the Council alone.

21. The Social Policy Agenda takes the language of the Lisbon Presidency Conclusions a step further. Its professed aim is to "confront the new challenges to social policy resulting from the radical transformation of Europe's economy and society", and in so doing to "ensure the positive and dynamic interaction of economic, employment and social policy". It is asserted that "the Lisbon Summit highlighted the essential linkage between Europe's economic strength and its social model"; the corollary of this is that the "guiding principle" of the Agenda will be "to strengthen the role of social policy as a productive factor". On "investing in people" the Agenda is more explicit than the Lisbon Conclusions, arguing that high expenditure in fact boosts the economy: "Most social expenditure on health and education represents an investment in human resources, with positive economic effects. As a result, there can be a positive correlation between the scale of such expenditure and the level of productivity". The inter-relatedness of economic, employment and social policies is illustrated by means of a diagram (p. 6), showing the "virtuous circle of economic and social progress" and their "mutual positive reinforcement". It could even be argued that the Agenda sees economic policy as primarily a means to improve social policy:

    A key message is that growth is not an end in itself but essentially a means to achieving a better standard of living for all. Social policy underpins economic policy and employment has not only economic but also a social value (p. 13).

The Agenda states further that "quality of social policy implies a high level of social protection, good social services available to all people in Europe, real opportunities for all, and the guarantee of fundamental and [sic] social rights"[21].

22. The means to meet the challenges of social policy are listed as follows: the open method of co-ordination; legislation to guarantee "fundamental social rights" (emanating where appropriate from the agreement of the social partners); the "social dialogue"; use of the structural funds; Community programmes; mainstreaming; policy analysis and research. It is significant that the "open method of co-ordination" is mentioned first: it is emphasised that the Agenda "does not seek to harmonise social policies", but to "work towards common European objectives and increase co-ordination of social policies in the context of the internal market and the single currency". Clearly "harmonisation" is taken to imply "hard law"; "co-ordination" grows out of "soft law"—policy guidelines and so on. The Agenda proposes to achieve this co-ordination through "an improved form of governance", in which "all stakeholders and actors" should participate. The actors are listed as follows: the Commission; the Council of Ministers; the European Parliament; and within Member States national governments; regional and local authorities; social partners; non-governmental organisations. No mention is made of national parliaments.

23. The Agenda then lists a wide range of objectives, and of actions through which these will be achieved. The objectives fall into five broad classes: full employment and quality of work; quality of social policy; promoting quality in industrial relations; preparing for enlargement; promoting international co-operation. The first two of these are by far the most substantial in terms of specific actions.

24. On full employment and quality of work the Agenda proposes to promote entrepreneurship, to develop life-long learning, with a particular emphasis on new technology, to remove barriers to the development of the services sector, and to give more priority to equal opportunities and the adaptability of the workforce. Under the general heading of "anticipating and managing change and adapting to the new working environment", the Agenda calls for "strong action" by the social partners, in areas such as the development of information and consultation procedures and the "creation of tools to prevent and mediate conflicts". In particular, the Commission proposes to launch a consultation with the social partners under Article 138 TEC on "modernising and improving employment relations". This consultation may, according to the procedure summarised above (paragraph 9), ultimately lead to an agreement enforced by means of a Council decision. Other new legislative proposals are contained in this section of the Agenda, on issues such as health and safety, while old existing proposals on the European Company Statute and on information and consultation of employees are revived.

25. In the section devoted to "quality of social policy", on the other hand, the emphasis is on policy co-ordination and regular reporting rather than on legislation. This of course reflects the limited Community competence in the area, and the sensitivities of Member States. Under "promoting social inclusion", for example, there is a reference to the adoption of an action programme, along with a call to "agree objectives and targets, develop indicators, strengthen statistics and develop studies in all relevant areas to support the open method of co-ordination". There are no legislative proposals to improve social policy, except in the areas of gender equality and the "development and respect of fundamental social rights". Article 13 TEC provides a specific legal base for action to combat discrimination, and the Agenda calls for the adoption of the Directive on equal treatment in employment[22]. In addition, the Commission proposes a consultation with the social partners under Article 138 TEC on data protection, to be launched in 2001.

26. The Agenda concludes with two Annexes. The first summarises the specific Commission proposals. It is notable that the more de-regulatory objectives described in the Agenda itself (promoting enterprise, removing barriers to expansion of the service sector, and so on) have no specific corresponding proposals—it must be assumed that they will be implemented through the existing employment strategy. The second Annex lists pending proposals in the social field. No fewer than 24 are listed, mostly Directives. Some date back as far as the 1980s, and bear witness to the slowness with which proposals on social policy have been considered by the Council. However, it is clearly the Commission's hope that some of the dormant proposals will be revived.

20  See Texts Adopted at the sitting of Wednesday 25 October 2000, pp. 16-21. Back

21  References elsewhere in the document are to "fundamental social rights". Back

22  Originally issued on 25 November 1999 as a Proposal for a Council Directive establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (document 13540/99). The Council reached political agreement on a revised text of this proposal on 17 October 2000. See the Committee's Report, EU proposals to combat discrimination (Session 1999-2000, 9th Report). Back

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