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Think &Act Conference, Paris, France

Project acronym: Think & Act
Co-ordinator: Diassina Di Maggio
Institution: APRE - Agency for the Promotion of European Research
Funded under: FP6-Citizens and Governance in a Knowledge- Society

Subject: Think & Act Governance and Democracy Conference (Paris, January 2007)

The recent refusal of some European nations to ratify the European constitution has triggered concern amongst various commission officials. For some, the failure heralds a crisis while others are left pondering "what crisis?"

Nonetheless, in a frank admission that something within the 'European project' has gone wrong, the Commission instigated a round-table discussion involving experts in an attempt to uncover the source and reasons for the setback.

The Think&Act conference held in Paris 10-12 January 2007, was titled "Democracy, European Governance and Social Sciences" with its theme "What's wrong with Europe?" opened to the various panel of experts. As the discussions evolved, it became apparent that bringing together politicians and social science researchers under one roof was going to be more complex than anyone had expected.

At its core, one critical impasse was highlighted; floored by researchers was the concern that the empirical nature of research should not be open to the influence and direction of political interests. A counter demand of politicians was that they were not seeking to influence the nature of results, but that they did want pragmatic solutions to current social problems.

However, both sides were willing to concede that research and the commission should make changes to the way in which they were conducting themselves in order to best answer the issues put on the table.

Notably, researchers stated that the Commission needs to simplify and reduce the administrative requirements associated with its funding programmes. Likewise, the Commission responded by declaring that academics need to simplify their content, making it more clear and less elitist in nature.

While the discussion lasting three days involved a great many themes, one of the most visible conclusions derived was that social science research was vitally important and had a lot to contribute towards better understanding of social issues and to the formulation of policy. Professor Hubert Heinelt, of the University of Technology, Darmstadt, Professor of Political Science and Coordinator of the 'Achieving Sustainable and Innovative Policies through Participatory Governance in a Multi-Level Context' project, warned that "the social complexities involved are likely to cause governance to fail".

Indeed, the multivariate discussions revealed just how complex the 'European Project' is, highlighting such areas as its 'presence' amongst the ideology of Europeans to its enormously complex economic structure, and even the perceived mystery surrounding the workings of the European Parliament. In the latter regard, several speakers pointed out that more transparency was needed - specifically for researchers- if the bridges between government and scientists were to be effectively built. Michel Rocard, Member of the European Parliament, Former Prime Minister, reinforced this point, but from the citizens point of view. "The gap," he claimed, "between European elites who form law and citizens is huge. The secrecy surrounding this process must be cleared, if Europe is ever to come closer to its citizens."

Moreover, speaking somewhat critically of Europe's progress-or lack thereof as the case may be, he claimed that a number of instances were responsible for the failure of ratification. Namely, he pointed out that unemployment in Europe constituted a major reason for the rejection of the constitution. He also equated capitalism as a "ferocious, efficient but unstable system", highlighting that "trade not aide" policies will ruin Europe and that only through "public works" can Europe be "returned to its rightful place".

While his views may seem somewhat harsh, they do serve to highlight the multivariate perspectives of Europe's complexities. This alone is indicative of the imperative need for hard, factual evidence that research alone can provide.

Speaking from the French perspective, Yves Gazzo, Head of Representation of the European Commission in France, said that Europe failed because it could not live up to its citizens' priorities or allay their fears, and that "Europe won't protect Europeans against globalization".

Perhaps this is one reason why people's belief that being part of the European Union is a good thing, has been steadily declining. Furthermore, there is also a lack of discussion on 'European Democracy' but national democracy is still a strong issue of debate, says Bo Stráth, Professor of Contemporary History, History Department and Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute. This is a source of the lack of conceptual clarity also supported by the lack of a clearcut political policy.

For Mario Télo, Professor of Political Science and President of the Institute of European Studies, Free University of Brussels, there is another concern that is not necessarily socio-political or economic in nature. He posed the question that there could be no solution to Europe's problem because it was not yet understood whether or not it was connected to issues of globalisation or Europe's construction - or both.

Joel Decailon, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation on addressing the first point, stated that democracy was threatened by the inherent nature of business, in that "finance moves quickly, democracy moves slow" .This suggests that the speed of which business moved had the very real potential of influencing governance by operating in areas in which either there was no policy formation, or by pressurising policy favourable to finance simply by being the first at the finish line.

It can be seen therefore, that there are two primary camps involved; those who feel the 'European Project' is a definite failure with no hope of revitalization or resurrection, and those who accept that while it might not be working as expected, there is both hope and scope for its continuance and revival.

Whatever the divide, there are at least several areas of consensus. One such is that the chasm between research and politics must be closed, that the two interests must find common ground upon which they can work together. Another consensus is that the European Parliament must reach out more to its peoples, that it needs to become more transparent in its workings and that it should encourage participation. Both research and government must develop the tools to fulfill their needs.

Not withstanding the complexities of Europe's hydra-like difficulties, nor irrespective of the solutions research can provide, the future remains unclear. The pervasive ambiguity with which the conference was opened seemed at least to have receded somewhat under these conclusions. People still believe that the EU is a good thing, they still prefer the Euro to other currencies.

There may be difficulties; this is to be expected with any growing entity. There may be hardships ahead, but a union of nations remains always an ideal that sets strength and diversity against the darkness of fragmentation, alienation and isolation.


Project: Joint EP - EUROFOUND seminar
Title of project: Working Time and Work-life Balance: A policy dilemma?
Date: 17 October 2006, Brussels, Belgium
Institution: EUROFOUND
Project site

Subject: Joint Seminar of European Parliament & Eurofound

Time spent working and the balance between work and life are issues on the forefront of European Union's policy debate. As defined at the Lisbon summit, increasing Europe's employment rates has become a major objective of the European Employment Strategy (EES). Working time can play an important role in this context, while flexible working time arrangements are considered a means for improving the competitiveness of companies and national economies. There is also a need to improve job opportunities for women and the senior population as well as great social demand for a better work-life balance.

Over 250 policymakers and social partners attended a half-day seminar at the European Parliament in Brussels on 17 October 2006. The seminar was organised by the European Foundation and the European Parliament (Alejandro Cercas MEP) and participants included Finnish and Spanish Ministers of Labour Tarja Filatov and Jesús Caldera, President of the European Parliament Josep Borrell, and several MEPs.

The event focused on working time arrangements and their consequences for workers and businesses, and on the implementation of policies facilitating the reconciliation of work and family life. Different working patterns over the life course were also explored and discussed (i.e. part-time work, flexitime, leave schemes, etc.), with a special focus on those groups with low employment rates. Additionaly, many speakers discussed the need for a revision of the Working Time Directive.

A result of the seminar was that there is evidence to support the case that innovative working time and work-life balance policies can lead to a win-win option for both companies and workers. Such a reform could produce a variety of positive impacts at company level, including enhanced employee performance, reduced absenteeism levels, better recruitment and retention potential, as well as greater overall time-efficiency.


Project acronym: OSIS
Title of project: Origins of Security and Insecurity: The interplay of housing systems with jobs, household structures, finance and social security
Co-ordinator: John Doling
Institution: School of Social Sciences, The University of Birmingham
Funded under: FP6-Citizens
Project website

Subject: Workshop on EU developments in housing systems (Brussels, 13 September 2006)

Within the framework of dialogue and dissemination activities, OSIS participated in a workshop organised by CECODHAS (the European Social Housing Observatory) in Brussels (13 Sep 2006) on developments in housing systems across the EU. The workshop, which attracted a number of policymakers and officials in Member States and EU policymaking mechanisms as well as representatives of housing organisations and scientific researchers, was entitled: 'Current developments in housing policies and housing markets in Europe: implications for the social housing sector'.

The OSIS contribution to the workshop focused on two aspects of home ownership. The first considered the extent to which the recent growth of home ownership in EU could and should continue and whether there are any limits to the growth of home ownership. The second dealt with the impact that home ownership might have on the long-term economic growth of the Member States and whether there are any home ownership limits on economic growth.

A useful conclusion derived from the workshop is that it is important that Member States are more comprehensively informed about the significance of housing, while many EU policies have significant consequences on housing systems.