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In informal employment, agreement takes precedence over disagreement… it's OFFicial!

(B2) Gathered in informal Council, on July 10 and 11, at the Chateau de Montvillargenne (apologies), in Chantilly (ultra-rich town in the greater Parisian suburbs, where villas rub shoulders with small turreted hovels and residences for people rather wealthy elderly), the 27 Ministers of Employment and Social Policy had their work cut out for them, with the social package put on the table by the European Commission on July 2 and the need – made more ardent by the No to Irish referendum – to make Europe more concrete, more visible to citizens. The French Minister of Labor, who chaired the session, Xavier Bertrand, therefore wanted to be proactive. “2008 must be the year of restarting social Europe. Everyone is calling for it. (Because) Europe must not only bring economic progress but also social progress. There is no contradiction between one and the other. » During this informal council – he continued – we addressed all the subjects “without taboo”: working time, the freedom to provide services and labor law, or works councils.

Negotiate working time
On a question such as "working time" which will require consultation with the European Parliament, the Minister has endorsed the compromise reached in the Council. But he did not want to indicate on which points the Council was ready to renegotiate to reach an agreement. “It is up to the European Parliament to define its position. Let's not skip the steps. In fact, the Council has – it seems – otherwise given carte blanche to the presidency to “strike a balance”. It is a "necessity" added the Minister. Even if Jan Anderson, the President of the Employment Committee, considered that the compromise was "very difficult to accept" as it stands, it seems that certain data, of a more political nature, are playing for an appeasement of the Parliament's position . "The European elections are close, as are the drawing up of the lists, and certain pressures from the Member States will begin to be felt," said an observer familiar with the matter.

Small disagreements in the agreement
A “significant advance” seems to have been obtained, on the “works councils” directive, during the meeting between social partners, on July 10th. Despite their disagreements, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and Business Europe have indeed agreed to join their efforts to try to reach a common position. What could be done “within a few weeks”. The discussion in the corridors also revealed that a group of countries (UK, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic) do not see the added value of the European Works Council Directive. As Petr Necas, Minister of Labor explained, answering a question from Europolitics in the press conference: “We do not see a political signal to change this directive. For us, this is not a No. 1 priority. But we will cooperate with the right presidency on the subject. »
On the discrimination directive (discussed unanimously), it is Germany which causes more concern for the Presidency and the Commission. Despite numerous concessions included in the proposal (exemption for individuals in particular), the German minister was unable to confirm to the Council a very positive approach. The UK also has some problems. “We must not ignore the difficulty of arriving at this subject,” explained Valérie Létard, the Secretary of State for Solidarity, at the end of the Council. “The subject is complex.” The issue of discrimination in education must therefore be looked at “carefully”, she added. These two subjects will be put on the agenda, for the first time, in the Social Questions Group on July 17 and 18. Ministers should consider this during the two Employment Councils, in October and December, with a political agreement expected at the last Council.

Freedom to provide services or minimum wage
The question of the Court's judgments on the freedom to provide services and minimum wages has also given rise to considerable debate. Luxembourg has raised this issue in particular. The latest case law has “disastrous political and moral repercussions”, explained the Luxembourg Minister of Labor, François Biltgen. “These judgments raise questions. There are concerns that we can understand,” added Frenchman Xavier Bertrand. But “we want to engage the debate in a serene way, without opposing mobility and protection”, he added. “The idea of ​​discussing it was accepted by all,” explained European Commissioner Vladimir Spidla. A declaration could be adopted at the end of the semester.

Three initiatives against poverty

Regarding active inclusion, Martin Hirsch, the “(French) high commissioner against poverty”, underlined how “active social inclusion” was a concept shared by everyone in Europe. The 27 find themselves – he explained – in a model which combines “Minimum income, access to work and organization of social services for the most vulnerable. Stressing how the communication to be published by the Commission in October was “awaited”, he announced several initiatives. Countries that wish to do so will be able to adopt quantified objectives, real commitments to reduce poverty in Europe. “A country by country approach, to have real and not incantatory commitments,” explained Martin Hirsch. The second track consists of “discussing method and testing solutions based on results, not ideology”. Third initiative, the launch of social experimentation networks by the end of November. The meeting on October 15 and 16, in Marseille, of the 27 in charge of poverty should be an opportunity to clarify these initiatives.

Acting on disability
In addition, Valérie Létard, Secretary of State for Solidarity, listed several of the objectives of the presidency, during this 2nd semester, particularly in terms of disability:
• have the UN Convention ratified. A “regular review” of the implementation of the Convention in the countries that have ratified it should thus be published by the Presidency.
• create a European standard for equipment intended for the visually impaired (websites, Braille labeling, vocalization of everyday devices).
• define good practices for the elderly through the promotion of “good treatment”, particularly in terms of the care of Alzheimer's disease by “reflecting on the definition of minimum indicators of good care”.
• promoting an “Equality label” to European companies that respect professional equality between men and women.

A framework for SSGIs?
The Minister also recalled the intention of the presidency to "define a community framework" for social services of general interest "adapted to their development" But there is a "debate" between the 27 "between specificity and community legal framework" she clarified. His Czech counterpart has also publicly explained that he is more in favor of “non-mandatory quality objectives” for the quality of social and health services. We need “a legal clarification” finally commented Xavier Bertrand, “guarantees facing the future. We have proposed a roadmap with a series of meetings on the issue. And I asked the European Commission to work on these aspects”.


Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).