Anna Diamantopoulou may not have the most high profile portfolio in Brussels. But for millions of citizens and tens of thousands of businesses the Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs occupies a pivotal position in the EU political firmament. An energetic champion of workplace fairness and equality, Diamantopoulou is nevertheless likely to be judged by how the EU matches up to its promise made at the Lisbon summit two years ago to achieve distinct social benefits and full employment by 2010. Currently aged 43, she is the youngest member of Romano Prodi's team, further standing out from many of the lawyers and career politicians who dominate the EU corridors of power by virtue of her previous experience as a civil engineer, higher education lecturer and managing director of a regional development company in her native Greece. Her political roots, meanwhile, are firmly established in Greece's socialist (PASOK) party. With more than half her term now complete, Diamantopoulou is seen as having developed a more 'modern' social and employment agenda, less dependent on the raft of legislation which found its way onto the statute book under her predecessors Padraig Flynn and Vasso Papandreou. But the challenge to emphasise the social side of the 'Lisbon process' in the face of pressures to improve economic competitiveness through deregulation remains formidable. Diamantopoulou talked to EBF about the principles of the new strategy, opportunities for women, and the Commission's plans to encourage greater corporate social responsibility.
EBF Many people are sceptical about the idea of a distinctively European social model. How do you respond to them?
Diamantopoulou I think in the member states of the EU there is an understanding common to all of us that social solidarity as a notion is something that concerns the state as well as society, and that the main mechanism for addressing this is re-distribution. That is a clear common basis and something we can build on in the context of the Lisbon summit, and more recently Barcelona, as we seek to strike a balance between the competitiveness of our economy and social cohesion. Of course, when we go from country to country--from France to the Netherlands or from Italy to Greece--we find huge differences. It is not possible to talk about a homogenous set of rules, structures or policies across Europe and we should not go beyond a minimum level--we cannot, for one thing, impose social policies on countries which are not members of the EU, and in any case social policies depend on wider issues like economic development and the structures and mentalities of different societies.
There should be minimum standards in terms of working conditions, in terms of health and safety and in the general quality of the workplace.
EBF What do you say to those who acknowledge the European social model but say re-distribution has gone too far in areas of social protection such as unemployment, health and pensions insurance?
Diamantopoulou There are plenty of horror story comparisons between the Scandinavians--who spend one third of their incomes on social policies--and the US--which spends less than half that amount. In fact, when you calculate the net private and public costs, as the OECD has done, you find that differences evaporate. The US--like Germany or Sweden--spends a little under a quarter of its GDP on health, pensions, social protection and the rest. And more than five per cent on education. The reality is that people have to pay for health, pensions, and the other social services one way or another--out of their taxes or out of their pockets.
EBF How can the European Commission--as opposed to the member states--meet the target of full employment (raising the employment rate of the population of working age to 70 per cent) by 2010?
Diamantopoulou The …