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The second year in Barroso II: Ten highlights from 2011 in employment and social affairs

27/02/2012

In February 2012, the Barroso II Commission completed the 2nd year of its mandate – a year of two different halves. In the first half, the EU made progress with economic growth and also with reducing unemployment. The 2nd half, however, saw a deceleration of the recovery and an increasing risk of a new recession. It became clear that Europe became more asymmetric in terms of the financial stability, economic and employment performance, and the social conditions of the Member States. Unemployment, poverty and inequalities have increased. We needed therefore to re-focus our efforts to address the problems of those most in need, especially young people.

Here are the ten highlights from 2011 in employment and social affairs:

New action for growth and jobs and stronger economic governance

The Commission's first Annual Growth Survey outlined the pathway out of the crisis based on fiscal consolidation and structural reforms, stretching to measures related to pension systems and childcare. The second AGS set out the Commission's priorities for 2012 in terms of economic and budgetary policies and reforms to boost growth and employment. It marked the opening of the second European Semester of economic governance. This year, we placed a strong emphasis on the need to step up implementation of commitments by Member States, with a clear focus on measures that enhance growth and labour-market participation. I am pleased that it included a strong social dimension and the need for action to protect the most vulnerable.

The creation of a new architecture for economic governance required a new effort in the analysis of employment policy in a changed context. Organising expert and stakeholder conferences on various topics (the future of the European labour market, wages and wage-setting mechanisms, flexicurity) helped our staff and partners preparing for this new chapter. Making better use of the contributions by our Dublin agency is also important, and this was also highlighted by my visit there. All these elements will be decisive in the preparation of the Employment package that I intend to present in the Spring this year.

Directing EU funds where needed most – today and in the future

In 2011 we presented an ambitious but realistic EU budget proposal for post-2013 that should reinforce the EU's social and employment dimensions.

For the employment and social programmes we tabled a proposal on the future European Social Fund, simplifying rules for beneficiaries and with a much bigger emphasis on results. Above all, we also introduced a strong focus on the Europe 2020 employment, education and poverty reduction targets.

We've also proposed a smaller EU-level Programme for Social Change and Innovation to act as a "tea-bag" in the cup of national budgets, stimulating greater social innovation and experimentation. It should help countries develop cost-effective solutions to employment and social challenges. Building on the positive experience with the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, we proposed to continue and improve the fund's role in helping redundant workers affected by globalisation.

Throughout 2011, the take-up of the European Social Fund increased and, reflecting the difficult employment situation in 2011, the number of EGF cases surged. The good news has been that results show that more than 40% of the assisted EGF workers are managing to find a new job within 12 months despite the very difficult economic circumstances.

That's why it is very disappointing that the Council did not take on our proposal to prolong the derogation, allowing the EGF to support workers made redundant because of the economic and financial crisis.

We have also been very active in providing support to Member States to better focus and use EU funds, in particular the ESF, with the objective of tackling the unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment throughout Europe, namely in the context of the "Youth Opportunities Initiative", adopted in December.

Lifting restrictions for the free movement of workers

1 May 2011 marked the removal of restrictions on the right to work in any Member State for citizens from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. Workers from these countries can now work freely throughout the EU, without work permits. For Romania and Bulgaria, I presented a report on the functioning of the transitional arrangements in November 2011 which confirmed the positive role that mobile workers from Bulgaria and Romania (EU-2) have played in the host countries' economies.

I also welcomed that Italy and Czech Republic will allow free movement of Romanian and Bulgarian workers from 1 January 2012 but regret that nine Member States notified the Commission of their decisions to continue to apply restrictions on labour market access, citing threats of serious labour market disturbances. The invoked reasons were carefully assessed by my services, and eventually I requested further information or a reconsideration of their decisions from some of them.

A special case that arose during 2011 was Spain where, following the government's request, the Commission approved a restriction of labour market access for Romanian workers until 31 December 2012 due to serious disturbances of its labour market.

Progress in labour law and social dialogue

2011 saw a new chapter begin on the review of the Working Time Directive. The social partners started to negotiate on a possible revision of this legislation which dates back to 2003. This effort also sends a positive signal for the future of EU-level social dialogue and the Commission strongly encourages it. In 2011 I launched a new Social Europe Guide, with the first volume on Employment policy, and the second one on the Social Dialogue.

The first ever Tripartite Social Forum took place in 2011 to cement the efforts and partnerships of the social partners in helping to carry out the Commission's 2010 proposals for An Agenda for New Skills and jobs.

In 2011, the European Works Council Directive and the Temporary Agency workers Directives became a reality in the Member States. European Works Councils are bodies representing the European employees of a transnational company. Through them, workers are informed and consulted by management on the progress of the business and any significant decision at European level that could affect their employment or working conditions. The Directive on Temporary Agency Work defines a general framework applicable to the working conditions of temporary workers across the EU – a growing segment of the labour force. It aims to guarantee a minimum level of effective protection to temporary workers and to contribute to the development of the temporary work sector as a flexible option for employers and workers.

A new database on transnational company agreements was established in 2011. It gives on line access to 215 texts concluded in 138 companies employing together over 10 million employees. This database will help fostering transparency and disseminate best practice on the functioning of transnational companies.

In early 2012, a Green Paper on Restructuring was adopted, in order to relaunch, and revitalise the public debate on this important subject. At the same time, the legislative package on the Posting of the Workers was developed to decision making phase.

Protecting the health and safety of workers – strategy on track

The mid-term review of the Community Strategy 2007-2012 reminded us that 5,500 workers die every year in the EU because of work-related accidents. It acknowledged that our priorities are the right ones but that the biggest challenge is still to encourage employers and employees throughout the Member States to change their attitude to workplace health and safety and to take it more seriously.  The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) biannual European campaign (2010-2011) was dedicated to promote Safe Maintenance. Raising awareness is fundamental in this field, and this was one of the objectives of my visit to the Bilbao agency. I also met Mr Lech Wałęsa who is currently the Fit for Work Global Ambassador, in order to discuss how to improve the health and safety of workers, particularly what concerns ergonomics.

Reducing poverty as part of national job and growth strategies

In 2011, 26 Member States set concrete national poverty or social exclusion targets. We are still short of the target set in Europe 2020 Strategy to remove at least 20 million people out of poverty but the fact that national targets have been set is quite an achievement. The priority is to make sure these commitments translate into a genuine, measurable difference on the ground.

The Annual Convention of the European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion in Cracow also sent a strong message that although the economic crisis is putting huge pressure on national social protection systems, it cannot be an alibi for non-action in this area. In order to explore further dimensions of social cohesion, I hosted a conference on inequalities in December 2012, involving other portfolios that can be connected to our Europe 2020 efforts (taxation, education, regional development etc.).

Getting Member States to set Roma integration strategies

We put forward, together with Vice-President Reding, the first ever EU level policy proposal dedicated to Roma. The European Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies helps guide national Roma policies and mobilise funds available at EU level to support inclusion efforts. It takes a targeted approach to Roma inclusion and sets goals in education, employment, health and housing. The films and documentaries we showed to the policy community in Brussels probably helped raising awareness about and making the case for Roma integration.

We are assessing national strategies and will be reporting to the Council and the European Parliament this Spring, and then on annual basis. In 2011, I also took part in high level events in Slovakia and Bulgaria to raise awareness of the opportunities offered by EU funds for Roma integration and highlight examples of projects with a good impact.

Linking entrepreneurial spirit with social objectives

Making our economic model more sustainable starts with a more responsible business behaviour which is why I backed the Commission proposals for a more stringent financial market regulation and co-sponsored a renewed strategy for more corporate social responsibility. We presented a new Social Business Initiative recognising the potential of entrepreneurship in helping to address social challenges in innovative ways. As a follow up, we proposed to further strengthen the microfinance facility in the period after 2013 and to extend possible funding support to social enterprises. This was actually the first year of the Progress Microfinance Facility in action. In cooperation with the EIF, it started to operate in 1/3 of the Member States – a process that has to be continued in a robust way. Beyond social business and CSR, I continue to explore the potential contribution of the social economy to our employment and social policy objectives.

Taking action to create Youth Opportunities

The crisis has hit a large number of people and youngsters looking for work are one of the groups suffering most. At the end of 2011, 22 % was the youth unemployment rate for EU-27, with two Member States reporting more than 40 % and several above 25%. That is why the Commission presented a new "Youth Opportunities Initiative" setting out concrete actions for 2012 and 2013 namely to help young people find a first job and focusing on a better use of the EU budgetary resources mainly from the ESF for this purpose. We can also do better to help Member States take up best practice from others.

Youth unemployment was also at the core of the discussions at the G20 Labour and Employment Ministers Meeting in September where I presented European policies under the Europe 2020 Strategy, and where we agreed to establish a Task Force on Youth Unemployment. The first results should be delivered soon under the Mexican G20 Presidency. In February 2012, I had the privilege to speak about youth employment in the United Nations, in New York.

Preparing for active ageing

Improving the employability of older workers and encouraging active ageing are set out as essential for reaching the EU employment rate target of 75 % by 2020. Active ageing policies will help to discourage early retirement, stimulate lifelong learning, adapt working conditions to the needs of older workers and provide care for the elderly. In July, I delivered an introduction to a College orientation debate on Europe's demography, to develop the common policy framework on ageing in a broad context. All the necessary work has been carried out to launch the 2012 European Year on active ageing and solidarity between generations. As an opening action of the Year from the side of the College, the White Paper on Pensions was prepared for adoption.