Brussels reins back on work law

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The Independent Online
THE European Union is adopting a more subtle and less interventionist approach to social policy, apparently in an attempt to assuage concerns in Britain and Germany that employment legislation must be reined back.

New European Commission proposals for social policy to be agreed today show that there is little in the way of new directives planned; instead, the EU is seeking to ensure existing legislation is applied. 'The Commission considers that there is not a need for a wide-ranging programme of new legislative proposals in the coming period,' the White Paper on Social policy concludes.

'Legislation will be considered only when strictly necessary to achieve the objectives of the Union and when the issues addressed cannot be solved at member-state level,' it says. Padraig Flynn, the Commissioner for Social Policy who is responsible for the paper, is known to favour an approach that does not alienate or confront London.

Britain has an opt-out from social policy under the Maastricht treaty, which the Commission repeats should end as soon as possible. 'The Commission has noted the strong desire of all member states to proceed as 12 whenever possible and it hopes that Union social policy action will in the future once again be founded on a single legal framework,' the paper says. But, it notes, 'the desire to act as 12 cannot be used as an excuse for standing still'.

The report makes jobs the top priority, but there is little in it to discomfort Michael Portillo, the new Euro-sceptic Secretary of State for Employment. During the second half of the year, the Commission will draw up a specific action plan based on proposals agreed last year, but the Commission emphasises that it will be 'leaving to member states the choice of means'. Instead, there is an emphasis on making what is there already work better, and implementing proposals that are gathering dust: one on the information and consultation of workers, two on part-time and temporary workers, and one on the overseas posting of workers.

It is clear that Mr Flynn, who travelled around Europe canvassing his plans, found no agreement on whether to press ahead with new legislation, or rein back, as Britain in particular would like. 'It must be said that there is no clear consensus on this point and that member states and others remain divided in their opinions about the need for further legislative action on labour standards at European level,' the paper points out. It puts off consideration of fundamental social policy changes until after 1996, when EU leaders will agree reforms to the EU's founding treaty. Until then, much of what it proposes is 'taking stock', the paper says.