The European Commission is presenting a package of reforms clarifying citizens’ rights, to promote what it calls “Social Europe.” It includes draft measures allowing people health-care outside their home countries without a doctor’s prior approval. There are also rules to stop discrimination outside work.
Brussels hopes this will counter claims that it is pro-business and removed from its citizens. The European Trade Union Confederation’s John Monks was cautiously optimistic: “Well, it is a modest step. It is good that the Commission has woken up to the fact, after quite a long period where they have been asleep, that social Europe is crucial. People are not going to support Europe unless there is a strong social dimension that gives them confidence in this very uncertain world.”
But as France takes over the presidency of the EU, it seems social Europe is not a high priority for its leader.
“We have plans for temporary work, for European Works Councils, but Europe does not have to take charge of everything, rather it is countries themselves which have the first duty to do so,” said President Sarkozy.
The comment raised the hackles of the European Trade Federation: “Traditionally, the French government under different Presidencies, not just Socialist ones, have been the best friends of social Europe and it has been people like the British who have been saying, ‘Do not increase our costs by improving social standards,’ and it is very disappointing for us to see the French President saying that,” John Monks said.
The EU’s perceived failure to make citizens’ rights a high priority may in part have triggered the Irish No vote on the Lisbon Treaty last month. So whether social Europe will be adopted by the bloc’s 27 member nations remains to be seen.