Barcelona Summit Struggles to Strike Balance between Social and Economic Policy

European Social Policy, April 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Barcelona Summit Struggles to Strike Balance between Social and Economic Policy


EU Heads of State and Government once again struggled to find a balance between further market deregulation and labour flexibility on the one hand and the protection of workers' rights on the other at the Barcelona European Council on March 15-16. Spanish Prime Minister Jos?-Maria Aznar turned the tables on the social partners when he met them on March 14, the day before he started chairing the Summit. The Spanish Presidency received the now customary demands from trade unions and business leaders for a socially-orientated EU and for faster liberalisation and less regulation respectively. But Social Affairs Minister Juan Carlos Aparicio called on the social partners to play a more constructive role in the reform process launched at the Lisbon Summit two years ago, which outlined plans for the EU to become the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. "Together with more involvement for the social partners must come more responsibility on their part", he said. The social partners themselves broadly support the Conclusions of the Barcelona Summit, but at the same time express concern about the impact of labour market reforms on job security. The European Commission also welcomes the progress made at Barcelona in terms of the EU's Social Policy Agenda, noting that the Summit went beyond initial expectations, but adds that more could have been achieved.Social SummitMr Aznar, who met representatives of the social partners together with Commission President Romano Prodi on March 14, outlined three ways in which the social dialogue could be strengthened. By working for full employment by the end of the decade through developing training and the knowledge society; by presenting their ideas for widening the reform process begun in Lisbon and by producing a progress report on the role being played by the social partners in the creation of employment. EU Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou said that greater involvement of the social partners was "crucial" because social dialogue was one of the "most important tools" for achieving new jobs in the EU. The meeting took place while between 60,000 to 100,000 trade unionists from across the EU marched outside the Palau de Congresos at the direction of the reform process in general. Banners singled out Mr Aznar, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi as pushing for liberalisation against the interests of public sector workers and consumers.Labour flexibility versus workers' rightsSocial reforms are considered central factors to achieving the Lisbon goals, and the Commission is keen to stress that sustained economic growth is not inevitable without reforms. But, once again, the Summiteers struggled to strike a happy balance. The EU is keen to encourage greater worker flexibility as part of its drive towards restructuring of the labour market, which it argues will lead to the creation of more and better jobs. But some critics suggest that this will cause a weakening of the European Social Model, which is at the heart of the EU's Social Policy Agenda and essential for achieving the goals set out by the Lisbon Summit two years ago. Both the European Council and the European Commission deny that this will happen. According to the Commission, the Barcelona Summit strengthened the European Social Model by defining it for the first time, in terms of "good economic performance, a high level of social protection and education and social dialogue".Trade unions wary of more deregulationFollowing the Summit, the ETUC said that it was pleased with the progress made in terms of Europe's Social Policy Agenda, and especially welcomed the failure of the initiative by some Member States to push for further market deregulation. "We are not against deregulation, but we want such market reforms to be properly thought through", said a spokesman for the ETUC.Trade unionists are wary of any move to increase labour flexibility without a proper analysis of the effect that this would have on job security. …

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