EC seeks social policy accord: Andrew Marshall finds officials working on a Brussels paper in co-operative mood

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(First Edition)

NEW EC proposals on social policy are likely to focus on defining where the Community can and should legitimately act, rather than laying out plans for intervention, Commission officials said yesterday.

Whatever Britain's relationship to the Social Chapter, the Government is unlikely to find much that it disagrees with in a Green Paper on social policy, drafts of which are circulating in Brussels. 'The trend will be for the agenda to be less problematic,' an EC official said.

Considerations of subsidiarity and the deregulation of labour markets would play a large part in new plans. Community action would aim to ensure that this did not entail the reduction of workers' rights, and would act as a buffer.

Officials say that many of the major controversial aspects of social policy - such as European works councils or limits on the working week - are already on the table or have been dealt with. Fresh proposals are likely to be drawn up under a new approach that creates simpler directives, giving more leeway to member states in applying them.

This would help to defuse British concerns that the Commission exploits legal loopholes to pass sweeping legislation.

The Green Paper, still at a relatively early stage, is being drawn up by officials working for Padraig Flynn, the Social Affairs Commissioner.

Commission officials say it will not specify legislation, though it may indicate areas where action is likely - on harmonising aspects of the transferability of occupational pensions, for instance.

This is an important issue for those working in different EC states and may be impeding labour mobility.

Instead, it assesses what has already been done on social policy, and then considers what is needed as a consequence of social change, the creation of the internal market and the crisis in European social security funding. An official said that it was concerned with 'setting the terms of reference for a future debate', not in prescribing measures.

A second document is being prepared on the operation of the social protocol of the Maastricht treaty, including the consequences of Britain's exclusion. But this will not be completed until after ratification of the treaty.

Even if Britain remains outside the protocol, many discussions of social policy issues will still begin with 12 member states.

The new direction of policy raises the question of how far Britain would need to use the protocol. Even in proposals put forward to the European Commission by the European Trades Union Confederation (ETUC), there is little that would be controversial.

The ETUC had suggested to Commissioner Flynn that his Green Paper should not be just a set of ideas, but a concrete package of measures that can be quickly introduced. This was their target, but it seems unlikely to be achieved.

Measures affecting part-time and temporary workers are likely to be a focus of both the Green Paper and a White Paper being drawn up by Jacques Delors, the Commission president, for the Brussels summit.

The idea might be to indicate broad areas of Community harmonisation - on medical and other social benefits, for instance - and leave the detail to member states.