Select Committee on European Union Forty-First Report


FOURTEENTH REPORT - THE FUTURE OF EUROPE: "SOCIAL EUROPE"[141]

Further consideration needs to be given to whether "equality" should be included as a value of the Union.

1.  The Government agrees. The Government is supportive of the inclusion of "equality" in the most recent draft of Treaty Article I-2 on the Union's values (document CONV 724/03 of 26 May 2003). It will work to ensure that "equality" remains listed in this Treaty Article.

If "full employment" is included as an objective, it will be important to establish a clear understanding of what it means.

2.  The Government considers that the purpose of the proposed objective of "full employment" should be chiefly aspirational (indeed, Article 3.2 of Part I of the draft Treaty provides that the Union is to "aim" at full employment). It should signal the importance that the Union attaches to tackling unemployment and inactivity. The Government shares the consensus of the Social Europe working group that an objective of "a high level of employment" is not sufficiently ambitious.

3.  However, European Union competence in the field of employment is limited, with activity at the European level focusing on the co-ordination of national employment policies through the European Employment Strategy. The Committee acknowledges that it would be difficult to establish a common definition of "full employment" in Europe, given the variety of traditions in Member States. The Government agrees with this analysis, and therefore does not consider that an objective of "full employment" should be defined in the Treaty. The Government does not believe that a single, "one size-fits all" definition of full employment is either necessary or desirable, given that there is no single, "one-size fits all" European employment policy. Rather, the EU objective of full employment will be pursued through national policies guided by national circumstances and conditions.

There is little pressure in the United Kingdom for any general extension of the competence of the EU in the social policy area, but there is a case for extending it to public health, provided that such an extension is confined to issues that are genuinely cross-border and does not impinge on Member States' control over how their health services are run.

4.  The Government agrees with the Committee's analysis that "there is little pressure in the United Kingdom for any general extension of the competence of the EU in the social policy area". The Government believes that an appropriate balance has now been reached in the social field, with most competences supporting national action, and some selected competences (e.g., Single Market related issues) being shared between the Union and its Member States.

5.  The Committee considers that there is a case for extending Community competence in the field of public health, provided that such an extension is strictly confined to cross-border issues and does not affect Member States' abilities to run their own health systems. The Government has already stated in its written Memorandum to the Committee of February 2003 that it strongly supports the view given in the report of the Social Europe working group that the existing recognition in Article 152.5 of the EC Treaty that Community action in the field of public health must fully respect the responsibilities of the Member States for the organisation and delivery of health services and medical care should be retained, and so agrees with the Committee on this latter point. More generally in the field of public health, the Government has not reached a final position on whether Community competence should be extended. The Government will consider the Committee's conclusions alongside recommendations from other fora, including the High Level Process of Reflection on Patient Mobility and Healthcare Developments in Europe, in deciding how to progress on this issue.

There is a need to clarify (and simplify) the legal base of EU social policy, and in particular the extent to which different aspects of social policy are areas of shared competence.

6.  The Government agrees. In order to reduce the potential for confusion, the Government considers that Part I of the Treaty should only specify areas of exclusive competence and supporting action, with shared competence as a residual category. For those policy areas where there is a mixture of shared and supporting competences (such as social policy), the detail should be set out in Part II of the Treaty. The Government has already submitted suggested draft Treaty amendments to the Convention's Secretariat to this effect. The Government will work to ensure that the new Treaty is clear and consistent in specifying competences, particularly in the social and employment fields.

7.  The Government notes that social policy has a special character, given that specific combinations of instruments and procedures are appropriate in different cases. The Government considers that this particular nature of social policy must be reflected in the eventual Treaty provisions dealing with social policy, in line with, for instance, existing Article 137 of the EC Treaty.

8.  The Committee raises the particular issue of competences in the field of public health. Article 152 of the EC Treaty provides for a mix of shared competence and supporting action on public health issues, whereas the first draft of Part I of the Treaty lists public health as a shared competence. In its comments to the Convention Secretariat on this draft, the Government has highlighted this inconsistency. The Government commented that public health should be listed in Part I of the Treaty as an area of supporting action, except for those areas - to be listed in Part II - where harmonisation is currently permitted (namely, quality standards for organs, substances of human origin, blood and blood derivatives, and measures in the veterinary and phytosanitary fields).

It is doubtful whether in a Union of 25 unanimity will offer a practicable means of agreeing measures in the social policy field.

9.  The Government considers that qualified majority voting and co-decision should be the general voting arrangement for Union decision-making in what is now the first pillar, except in areas of vital national interest, where unanimity should apply. The Government believes that this exception should operate in remaining areas of the social and employment fields where unanimity currently applies, in order to respect the diversity of national traditions in Member States.

10. The Government disagrees with the analysis that unanimity will block decision-making in a Union of 25. The power of veto for selected areas of social and employment policy is used sparingly and responsibly by existing Member States, and the Government sees no reason why this situation should not continue in an enlarged Union. Furthermore, new arrangements are envisaged in the post-enlargement Council to facilitate compromise solutions, particularly in areas where unanimity applies. These arrangements are likely to include enabling increased collaboration between like-minded Member States. Also, the Government believes that the amendments introduced by the Nice Treaty in this area, including provisions to allow the Council to move by unanimous decision to qualified majority voting in certain areas of social and employment policy, should be fully tested before considering extending qualified majority voting.

11. Finally, paragraph 19 of the Committee's Report discusses whether unanimity has been a bar to the adoption of legislation in the social policy field. In his evidence to the Committee, Mr Hain cited Regulation 1408/71, which relates to social security, as one example of legislation adopted under unanimity. The Report is critical of this example, as it notes that the original Regulation was adopted over 30 years ago when there were six Member States in the European Community. However the Regulation has been annually updated since 1971 and nowadays is updated by unanimity in a Union of 15. The Commission's recent proposal to extend the legislation to third country nationals was scrutinised and adopted within four months of its being presented on a legal base acceptable to all Member States. The Government therefore does not believe that unanimity delays or impedes decision-making in the social and employment fields.

National parliaments should have an opportunity to scrutinise action taken under the Open Method of Co-ordination at an early stage in the process.

12. The Government welcomes the Committee's interest in the Open Method of Co-ordination. It agrees on the importance of national parliaments being fully involved in scrutinising developments under the Open Method of Co-ordination. The Government takes note of the Committee's views on scrutiny by national parliaments and will bear these in mind in further discussions on the Open Method of Co-ordination in the Convention and the Intergovernmental Conference. Once the most appropriate means of dealing with the Open Method of Co-ordination into the Treaty has been agreed, the Government will return to the Committee's specific suggestion that a procedure should be developed to enable full parliamentary scrutiny of processes under the Open Method of Co-ordination. The specific nature of any procedure developed for the UK Parliament will depend on the nature of any Treaty reference that is finally agreed.

There would be advantage in giving the Open Method of Co-ordination a Treaty base, provided that it does not reduce the present flexibility of its application.

13. The Government would not be opposed to giving the Open Method of Co-ordination a Treaty base, as long as doing so allows flexibility of its application.

If the social partners and civil society are to be given a greater role in the decision-making of the Union, a number of important issues need to be clarified.

14. The Committee highlights that the report of the Social Europe working group suggests that the role of the social partners should be "facilitated and enhanced", but that the report does not specify the means for doing so. The Committee also suggests that issues such as the definition, role and representation of civil society should be clarified.

15. The Government recognises the key role played by the social partners in the social and employment policy fields. However the Government does not consider that further procedures or powers are needed to facilitate or enhance the social dialogue.

16. The Government acknowledges the important involvement of civil society organisations in the social policy arena and is pleased that that this has already been recognised in the draft Treaty. The Government considers that Article 34 of Part I of the draft Treaty (on "the principle of participatory democracy") provides an appropriate means of recognising the dialogue between the Union's institutions and civil society. The Government does not believe that further definition of civil society in the Treaty (such as setting out prescribed roles) is necessary.

Any amendment of Article 16 EC relating to services of general interest would be fraught with difficulty.

17. The Government agrees. It also agrees with the Committee's suggestion that a better approach than revising Article 16 of the EC Treaty would be to support the Commission's strategy of using Communications which clarify the position in general terms and propose Community action only where there is consensus on the need for further clarification of the policy for services of general interest.


141   Government Response dated 11 June 2003.  Back


 
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