Troika Informal Council of Ministers of Employment and Social Policy

Maastricht, 08/07/2004


We in the ETUC are looking forward to this Dutch Presidency. Dutch Presidencies have traditionally been well regarded and of course our meeting here in Maastricht today is a powerful reminder of those previous talks 12 years ago which produced the Maastricht Treaty.

Which direction for social Europe is the underlying question posed by the discussion paper. This is a big question and needs to be considered carefully.

On the one hand, there is pressure in a number of countries in the name of competitiveness for cheaper welfare states; no improvement, and perhaps lower labour standards for example on working time, and a new emphasis on privatisation and liberalisation.

On the other hand, since Jacques Delors' day, social Europe has been the popular component of Europe. Complementing the power of the single market and single currency with a solid social platform to help change take place in a civilised way has been the approach. This balance was confirmed at Lisbon. I hope it will be reconfirmed in the current Kok exercise.

There were echoes of it in the Irish Presidency's theme of Partnership for Change - a theme which I hope that the Dutch Presidency will preserve and build on as we seek a social policy agenda for the period up to 2010 in the new, enlarged Europe.

This is a task which will challenge our vision, ambition and political will as we seek economic growth and social progress as our twin goals. Good social policy helps improve economic performance. Joint commitment of the social partners to resolving problems is the best route to success. That was after a characteristic of the success of the Polder Model, which seems more elusive now than in its heyday.

My first impression from the Dutch Presidency paper is that “cost-effective” theme means “less” Social Europe, that safety nets should be lowered and that more sticks rather than carrots should be the order of the day.

So on the first topic - managing change etc - why not a renewed emphasis on national partnerships to promote partnership for change and to find the balance between adaptability and security.

There is more than a hint in the paper about tightening / cutting welfare entitlements. We warn strongly against this approach. Flexibility in the labour market may be necessary to achieve the Lisbon goals but flexibility defined as standards busting will be harmful, not helpful.

There are positive measures that need emphasis - prompting people into work by active labour market policies; attracting woman into the labour market with better gender equality and child-care measures; helping older workers' activity rates by tax incentives and lifelong learning along the lines adopted in some Nordic countries - these are the best approaches, not lowering the safety nets.

So the ETUC hopes that you will be urging member states to renew their commitment to European targets for the availability of childcare facilities, with the costs shared between families, employers and public authorities.

Nor should you follow the fashion for longer working hours.

Long hours mean low productivity as well as harming health and safety. They disguise poor practice. They lead to early burn out. When you look at the Working Time Directive - as you will - there points need to be uppermost and not swamped by claims for the maintenance or creation of individual opt outs.

The emphasis should be on negotiations on intelligent working time, not more.

On the social protection side, job creation is central to the sustainability of these systems. We see no evidence that enhancing the role of the private sector by partial privatisation has helped. Indeed, while many pension schemes have difficulties, those private pension schemes which depend on share values are in particular trouble. The principles of social insurance, with solidarity and redistribution are very relevant to today's situation. They should not be discarded. Efficiency improvements - of course but no quick fix by handing it to private sector organisations.

I have already mentioned older workers. I repeat - let's not approach the issue of activity rates with sticks - we'll cut your benefits - but with inducements and I emphasise again the positive experiences in Nordic countries.

Managing diversity - your third topic - is one for us all. Trade unions have a role along with our social partners. But Governments and the public sector needs to be prominent and pro-active as a promoter of good practice.

The arguments for strong social partnerships, welfare states and public services are not chic in Dutch Government circles or indeed in many other Government circles.

But these are the key elements of the European Social Model and we will strive to maintain them, to forge, in the words of the Irish Presidency, those “Partnerships for Change”

An American professor once said “if you think education is expensive, just see how expensive ignorance is”.

If you think that Social Europe is too expensive, then take a look at the costs - political as well as economic and social - of the alternatives.
- less social cohesion, less common endeavour, more health and safety problems, more conflict.

We can do better than this.