For a long time, social and employment policy was the 'poor relation' of European integration. Over time, however, the gap dividing it from the economic priorities has gradually been bridged. But it was above all the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 that made employment a policy 'of Community interest'. The year 1997 also saw the launch of the European Employment Strategy (EES), which requires the Member States to coordinate their policy measures. Each year, the guidelines they draw up are forwarded to the European Parliament, which takes the opportunity to underline its own priorities, such as the creation of high-quality jobs and non-discrimination against women or older workers.
In November 2003, 14.3 million Europeans - 8% of the labour force - were unemployed in EU-15. The situation is worse in the accession countries, where the average employment rate is 14.4%. Further efforts will thus be needed to promote social cohesion, particularly as from 1 May 2004 the new Member States will be fully incorporated into the European Employment Strategy, in which the principle of cohesion plays a key part.
Modernising the European social model
Even though practical circumstances vary from one Member State to the next, every government has to meet the same challenges, such as ageing populations, regional disparities and the need to ensure that welfare systems are sustainable in a sometimes unfavorable economic climate. As it seeks to cope with these challenges the European social model sometimes faces an uphill struggle but it still serves as a benchmark, a point re-emphasised in the draft Constitution drawn up by the Convention. The European social model encompasses many different areas ranging from education and training to non-discrimination, dialogue between trade unions and employers, social security and social welfare.
It was with a view to protecting and modernising this model, to encourage employment and social inclusion, that the Member States adopted the European Employment Strategy (EES) at a special European summit in Luxembourg in 1997. The aim of this strategy was to promote the convergence of labour market policies and improve the structure of these markets, thereby creating more and better-quality jobs.
At the Lisbon summit in March 2000, a much broader strategy was defined, seeking not only to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world by 2010, but also an economy 'capable of sustainable economic growth and with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion'. The stated objective was to aim towards full employment.
So far, so good but further efforts needed
An initial, encouraging assessment of the EES was made in 2002. The overall rate of employment in the EU had risen from 62.4 % in 1999 to 64.2 % in 2002, although this is still too low. In the accession countries in 2002 the employment rate was 56.1%. The target set in Lisbon is to achieve a 70% employment rate for the entire Union by 2010. In 2003, four countries met this target - Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The initial assessment in 2002 thus prompted the EU to step up its efforts focusing on three key objectives: full employment, quality and productivity in work and social cohesion and inclusion.
Long-term unemployment affects many Member States and leads to social exclusion. In 2002, 3% of the EU labour force had been unemployed for at least 12 months. The European Strategy thus calls on governments to take action to ensure that all unemployed people are offered a fresh start (for example through training or retraining) before their twelfth month of unemployment, and in the case of young people before their sixth month of unemployment.
Every year the European Parliament gives its opinion on the employment policy guidelines. In their last report, MEPs stressed the need to improve the provision of child-care facilities for young children (to reduce one of the obstacles to the employment of women), to develop local and regional strategies, to reduce the tax burden (especially for small businesses), to expand in-house training, to train older workers and to reduce undeclared employment.
Parliament has often argued that it is not enough to create jobs: the aim must be to create high-quality jobs. This point has been included in the strategy, with the Member States undertaking to increase investment in human resources, training and lifelong education, as suggested by Parliament. One of the current targets is to ensure that by 2010 at least 85% of 22-year-olds in the EU have completed higher-level secondary education.
MEPs have also emphasised that measures to encourage social inclusion should be backed up by adequate funding and that training policies should also meet the needs of people who are most liable to suffer from social exclusion, such as the elderly, the disabled or migrants. The Lisbon strategy aims to increase the employment rate for older workers (those aged 55-64) by 50% by 2010. In 2003, four countries (Denmark, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom) had achieved this target, but in five others (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg and Austria) the employment rate for older workers was still below 33%. In the accession countries, the rate was 30.6% in 2002.
Parliament has regularly called over the years for extra measures to combat the persisting inequalities between men and women in the labour market. In November 2003 in the EU-15, the unemployment rate for women was 8.9 %, while for men it was 7.3 %. In 2001, one woman in six between the ages of 25 and 54 did not work because of family responsibilities. The goal of the European strategy is to raise the employment rate for women to over 60% by 2010. In 2003, however, only four countries - Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria and Portugal - had achieved this objective (see also our note on 'Equality at the workplace').
Is coordination enough?
Employment is a policy area which comes largely under the responsibility of national and regional authorities. However, the Member States voluntarily coordinate some of their policies, without using binding EU legislation, under what is known as the 'open coordination method', an approach which can also be used for economic policies. In a report drawn up in 2003, the European Parliament expressed fears about the lack of democratic scrutiny of this procedure, which does not officially provide for the involvement of MEPs. Parliament requested that primary law should stipulate what role this method should play among the Community's policy tools and how the various parties concerned should be involved in it.
However, in Parliament's view, the draft Constitution has failed to provide a satisfactory response. While MEPs welcomed the fact that the draft Constitution highlighted employment, gender equality and sustainable development, they were concerned that the open coordination method was being preserved in its current form, without any involvement of the European Parliament. Furthermore, as far as the employment guidelines were concerned, Parliament would continue to be merely 'consulted'.