Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions
REALISING THE EUROPEAN UNION'S POTENTIAL: CONSOLIDATING AND EXTENDING THE LISBON STRATEGY
OPINION OF THE EMPLOYMENT COMMITTEE
The Employment Committee has considered the Commission Communication "Realising the European Union's potential: consolidating and extending the Lisbon strategy" and submits its Opinion to the Employment and Social Policy Council, as requested by the Swedish Presidency.
The Committee's comments concentrate on the proposals which relate to its competence areas. The key reflections of the Committee are as follows:
The overall balance of the Communication
·While the Communication sets out in a concise manner the very broad range of policy actions and initiatives which have been put in place to support the attainment of the Lisbon objectives, there were some concerns that the emphasis on the economic as against the social dimensions could better reflect the balance achieved in these areas in European Council conclusions, including the European Social Agenda approved in Nice.
·While noting the progress already made, the Committee welcomes the Communication's open assessment of the shortcomings in policy implementation and of the policy areas where challenges still remain.
·The Committee agrees that the ten strategic decision areas identified by the Commission provide a clear and comprehensive framework for giving renewed momentum to action.
Recognising the link between the European Employment Strategy and Lisbon strategic objectives
·The Committee believes that a key point which emerges from the Communication is the importance and relevance of action at all levels through the Employment Strategy to achieve the Lisbon strategic objectives. The Strategy provides the instruments for delivering, either directly or indirectly, many of the outcomes set out under the proposed decision areas. The role of the Strategy is clear in relation to the sections of the Communication dealing directly with employment and labour market policy (i.e. "More and Better Jobs" and "New European labour markets"), but, equally, many of the ambitions proposed under the eEurope, IT skills, Research, Innovation and Enterprise, and New Frontier Technologies sections will require the foundation of a strong and ongoing commitment to investment in people which is central to the Employment Strategy. This underlines the need to pursue the Employment Strategy with vigour and ambition both at the Member State and the Union level. This also involves strengthening the contribution of all relevant actors, including the Social Partners. The Committee also recognises the importance of making progress in reforming product and capital markets to further underpin the growth and employment potential of the Union.
·The Committee emphasises that many of the employment and labour market initiatives proposed in the Communication in such areas as labour force participation levels for older workers, women and others under-represented in the labour market, addressing skills gaps and bottlenecks, committing to lifelong learning, and strengthening the contribution of the Social Partners are already covered in the Employment Guidelines, and are best dealt with through that process.
More and Better Jobs
·The Communication proposes that the European Council should agree intermediate targets for employment rates across the EU for January 2005 of 67 % overall and 57 % for women. Member States are also asked, in consultation with Social Partners, to contribute to achieving the EU-wide targets by setting national targets for meeting the Lisbon objectives and, in particular, for significantly increasing the number of older people (55-64) remaining in the workforce.
·While supportive of the need for ongoing monitoring of progress towards the Lisbon targets, the majority of the Committee have reservations about the value of setting the proposed EU level intermediate targets for the following reasons among others:
- Member States do not control all the elements which determine the attainment of employment rates objectives;
- such targets do not take account of the different starting positions of Member States; and
- potential disincentive effects on the Employment Strategy.
·On the matter of setting national employment targets as proposed in the Communication, the Committee's preferred position is to retain the flexibility which is provided in the existing Employment Guidelines, and in accordance with the Lisbon European Council conclusions, where Member States are asked to "consider" setting national targets, including targets for older workers.
·The Committee emphasises the need to complement the efforts to increase employment rates by providing more jobs with action to improve quality in work in line with the European Social Agenda adopted at the Nice European Council. Improving quality in work also contributes to improving the functioning of the labour market, enhancing active participation and inclusion as well as raising productivity levels.
·Other key points within this section which the Committee would emphasise include:
- The importance of an integrated and mutually supportive policy mix, shaped by the European Council, with the goal of full employment with better jobs at its heart and with appropriate recognition of the different starting points of Member States;
- The emphasis on increasing the participation of women, older workers and others who are under-represented in the labour market;
- The importance of an active policy approach, including ongoing reform of tax and benefit systems, to promote greater participation in working life and job creation; and
- The importance of partnership and co-operation in the development of the relevant policy fields and of strengthening in particular the contribution of the Social Partners.
New European Labour Markets - open to all, with access for all, and the IT Skills Gap
·The Committee broadly supports the creation of a High Level Skills and Mobility Task Force. The proposed Task Force, if established, should bring practical added-value to the issue of skills needs and mobility and should have a tight remit with tight deadlines. There should be maximum co-operation with existing initiatives at both Union and Member State level, including the instruments of the Employment Strategy. The Committee would welcome the opportunity to be consulted on the more detailed terms of reference of the exercise.
·Promoting eEurope is equally important to the Lisbon strategic objectives. It is critical to competitiveness, economic and employment growth and promoting quality. It is closely linked with progress in other domains, including in innovation, research and new technology development. The Committee stresses that the IT skills gap is an area of particular concern. The Committee welcomes the action points proposed by the Communication in this sphere, emphasising that a number of them are already reflected in the Employment Guidelines with particular reference to the lifelong learning and skills bottleneck elements as well as to the call to the Social Partners to strengthen their efforts in this area.
·While recognising the specific need to address the IT-skills gap the Committee feels that the structural causes should be addressed, which means that there is a need for an overall focus on the skills gap as a whole. The Committee stresses that enhanced skills - both basic and higher level skills - are necessary to maximise labour market participation. Better skills, with associated qualifications transparency, are vital not just for employability but for promoting labour market mobility, developing a genuine European labour market and thereby redressing, inter alia, the so-called "employment paradox" of emerging bottlenecks co-existing with high levels of structural unemployment. Better skills are also an important component in enhancing quality in employment.
Effective social protection for an ageing population
·The Committee, while fully supportive of the importance of social protection reform to meet the demographic challenge and future sustainability of pensions, would wish to signal its particular support for ensuring that the step shift to the knowledge society is based on the principle of inclusion. It has been the Committee's consistent position that more and better jobs are a key to social inclusion. Access to skills is the passport to employment, especially in the new economy. It is essential that the needs of older workers and others who are under-represented or disadvantaged in the labour market are given particular attention in terms of access to education and training.
The Committee welcomes the comprehensive set of indicators used in the Communication and the second annex to demonstrate progress made in the four policy fields of employment, innovation, economic reform and social cohesion. It would however offer the following comments:
·A key purpose of indicators is to underpin the policy messages which will give new impetus for action. The linkage between the indicators data and policy messages in the Communication could be enhanced.
·Further work needs to be done to update and refine some of the indicators and to capture the qualitative as well as quantitative progress made. The use of time series to assess trends in progress and performance, rather than only two fixed periods in time, would better enable differences in Member States' starting points and cyclical economic change to be taken into account. Likewise, the selection of a smaller group of "headline" indicators, in line with the Nice European Council conclusions, would better reflect the central importance of the employment objectives to the Lisbon goals.
·The effort to ensure consistency between the Communication's employment-related indicators and those used in the Joint Employment Report is welcome, although some technical inconsistencies are noted which need to be addressed in the future.
·The Commission Communication is a reflective, concise and challenging statement of what has been achieved and what remains to be done in pursuit of the Lisbon Strategy. However, the balance and interaction between the economic, employment and social dimensions should be enhanced in line with European Council conclusions, including the European Social Agenda approved in Nice;
·The effective implementation of the Employment Strategy is vital to the attainment of the Lisbon objectives and a number of the action points proposed link in closely with the current Employment Guidelines. The most effective way to achieve them is through the Employment Strategy. Additionally, focusing more on attaining quality in work, as a significant attractive factor and as an incentive to work, should be one of the main dimensions for strengthening the Strategy;
·A majority of the Committee have reservations about the benefits of establishing EU level intermediate targets. On the matter of national targets, the Committee favours the provisions of the existing Guidelines which invite Member States to "consider" setting national targets;
·Recognition of the importance of the policy mix and of partnership in the development and implementation of policy actions and initiatives is welcome, with particular reference to the role of the Social Partners;
·The concept of the new European labour markets is welcome, as is the initiative to establish the Task Force on High Level Skills and Mobility - the Task Force should, in fulfilling its remit, take into account the ongoing work in relevant areas;
·The need to address skills gaps as a whole, but with particular reference to IT skills gaps, is welcome. The need to invest in people and the emphasis on developing a framework for lifelong learning are critical. These are also a key means of securing social inclusion;
·Many of the ambitions proposed under the eEurope, IT skills, Research, Innovation and Enterprise, and New Frontier Technologies sections will require the foundation of a strong and ongoing commitment to investment in people which is central to the Employment Strategy; and
·The indicators used give a valuable measure of progress but will need further refinement, in particular to develop qualitative aspects.