Green party

A Social Europe

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By Jean Lambert MEP

There are still far too many people who see the Greens as a movement only concerned with the environment and find it difficult to understand that if you are talking about a truly sustainable society that has to apply to all its aspects. A society which is unjust, deeply divided and lacking in democracy is inherently unstable and therefore unsustainable. So, the Greens are interested in economic and social affairs.

Indeed, a radical shift in the direction of our economic thinking has been a dominant strand certainly in my own Party's manifesto since we came into being in 1973 (we are Europe's oldest Green Party): our basic manifesto is even called 'Manifesto for a Sustainable Society'. The word sustainable at that point created considerable confusion for journalists. I remember our local paper doing an interview with my husband back in 1978 and, in the published text, the word 'sustainable' being replaced by 'suitable' throughout.

I believe that many members of Council and Commission are equally unclear as to what sustainable means in political terms and see it only another word for lasting but it is more than that. It integrates social, economic and environmental factors. This Summit is primarily concerned with only the social and economic - which at least represents some sort of progress. Thank heavens for the Swedes who recognise that the environmental is also crucial, and the spectre of Rio + 10 looming for 2002.

It has been a major criticism of Green parties that the EU has only been concerned with the pursuit of economic goals - free trade and the single market. There has been an assumption that growth and the Structural Funds will provide for any disparity in income between areas.

This is manifestly not the case. Just look at London, the region I represent in the European Parliament. Inner London is deemed to be the richest region in the whole of the EU on the basis of GDP - we have the fabulous income from the financial City of London. Yet, Inner London also has areas that are eligible for Objective 2 funding under the Structural Funds, areas of great poverty and deprivation.

So it is clear that growth alone is not a solution to poverty. It is constant question of mine as to how is the EU to measure the quality of the 3% growth which is its current target. What will be the impact on the environment - after all, clearing up oil slicks adds to GDP but reduces environmental sustainability; increasing spending on crime prevention indicates a declining quality of life? How is that income to be distributed, given that the gap between rich and poor is widening: the U.K. is an example of that - yet our economy is supposed to be a successful copy of the American model, flexible labour force and 'welfare-to-work' included.

At last, there is a growing willingness in the EU to tackle those disparities - hence the increasing emphasis on 'social Europe' and the need for action.

In November 1999, the Council of Ministers for Employment and Social Affairs identified 4 key areas that required deepened co-operation:

  • to make work pay and to provide secure income
  • to make pensions safe and pension systems sustainable
  • to promote social inclusion
  • to ensure high quality sustainable health care.

It was decided to give priority to social inclusion and pensions. Why? I believe it is from a mixture of the pragmatic and the principled (a very Green approach!) and can be looked at from a cynical or an altruistic perspective!

From the cynical perspective, it is clear that there is almost a panic going on in many member states about demography: we have an ageing population and there is deep concern that there will not be enough younger people in the workforce to provide the income to the state through tax and social security payments to meet the pension, health, social care and other needs of the elderly. This is, of course, also compounded by the reality of change in family units: fewer children, different expectations of women or, indeed as in the case of the UK, a growing number of people choosing to live alone - hence a drop in the informal care mechanisms as well, so a greater responsibility for the state.

So, we now have the Commission Communication on Safe and Sustainable Pensions, published on October last year. The High Level Working Party on Social Protection looking at the issue presented a progress report to the Nice European Council and a questionnaire was sent to all member-states looking at their practices and proposals. The Communication outlined 10 basic principles, including:

  • maintain the adequacy of pensions (some of would say that we should reach an adequate level!)
  • ensure inter-generational fairness
  • strengthen solidarity in pension systems
  • maintain a balance between rights and obligations (this talks about benefits reflecting an individual's contribution to a pension system.

This of course begs many questions about such issues as the value to society of unpaid work - often done by women, particularly as the next point says...

Ensure that pension systems support the equality between men and women.

How pension schemes should be run and financed is emphasised as being the responsibility and the choice of member states, but it is obvious that the growth of personal pension plans is to be encouraged.

This raises a number of questions about how such funds should be run. If there is to be more money invested in this way, which businesses, run to what criteria becomes a crucial issue for sustainability? We are currently looking at a proposal for a Directive concerning institutions and occupational retirement schemes which focuses on access to the Single Market. We are not yet really talking about the other dimensions of investment.

This is why it is important for Greens that when we are looking at the privatisation of state-run industries, for example, we are insistent on that (if it is going to happen at all) taking into account the social and environmental aspects of such liberalisation.
Liberalisation alone is no guarantee of sustainability.

This need to reduce the amount spent on social protection and the demographic situation also begins to explain why there is such an emphasis on increasing the number of people involved in the labour market. We have seen the 'New European Labour Markets' strategy adopted by the Commission in February, which looks at numerous areas relating to 2 key topics:

  • Dealing with Skills, both barriers and gaps
  • Removing barriers to mobility

If the 2-stage strategy is approved this weekend, we are looking at a target date of 2005. The first stage aims to deal with strengthening the free movement of people, the next will be a high-level business-led task force to look at skills and mobility of labour problems in more depth. Let us hope that these business people will all come from companies with good, worldwide environment and employment policies, who involve all stakeholders in setting their policies. This would help develop real sustainability and would stop other bodies, like our Group, having to add the dimensions that were left out the first time!

Another reason, supported by many xenophobes, to maximise our own work force would be that we would not then have to contemplate a positive migration policy, which is also now on the EU agenda!

To be more positive about some of these developments, however, is to say that quite frankly many of them would be good policy, whatever the rationale.

The recent framework directives, based on Article 13, which aim to tackle discrimination in the employment field on grounds of age, disability, religious belief and sexual orientation; and in a wide range of areas concerning race or ethnic origin are sound, socially inclusive measures which demonstrate certain values that the EU should express.

The revision of the Directive concerning equality of opportunity between men and women should be seen in a similar vein. The emphasis that the Swedish Presidency and the Commission are putting on looking at the quality of work and the work-life balance, for each individual and for men and women is also important.

We support the Commission's targets concerning increasing the number of people in the work-force because we know that the talents and abilities of many are currently wasted and we also want to reduce working hours overall as a means of helping to create more work. This desire for greater employment opportunities should not mean any job at the lowest level of pay possible. People have to be fairly remunerated for the work that they do: just as we believe in global fair-trade, we also believe in fair pay.

However, not everyone is able to find work when they want it, or to work full-time. We therefore believe we have to guarantee a reasonable minimum income. People have to have the means to participate more fully in society if we are to tackle poverty and social exclusion.

Greens want every individual to have access to life-long learning, but this should not only be in the framework of developing new skills for work purposes.

As I said earlier, the EU is now taking social exclusion more seriously (not poverty, that's not in the Treaty so cannot appear in official titles!). We have the Commission Communication on the Social Agenda and are currently discussing the Social Action Programme in the co-decision process.

We have had 27 indicators proposed which aim to look at different dimensions of economic and social policy and to provide the basis for the process known as open co-ordination (this Summit is also likely to agree to this for the pensions issue). This is the process which has been used to develop the Union's employment strategy.

Each member state agrees to develop a national action plan against agreed guideline, with an aim to all states developing and upgrading their policies and performance in the area under consideration. The first National Action Plans concerning tackling Social Exclusion should be prepared for June this year.

We have been critical of the indicators selected because they do not include much of an environmental dimension - one out of 27 is hardly an integrated approach. We have also been told that it has proved very difficult to find any standard EU indicator in the area of social exclusion so, member-states will employ their own indicators and we'll see how that develops.

We did point out that a lot of work has already been done at the level of the UN as well as by organisations such as the New Economics Foundation in the UK, but this has counted for little. After all, when the indicators were set out, people were not looking for sustainability but for economic and social cohesion! Quality of life compared to levels of GDP was not asked for.

So, how should we judge the success of this Summit and progress to sustainability?

I would be happy if the press reported the social agenda, not just the economic one. People want to know what the EU is going to do to meet their needs and frankly, cheaper air fares is not a priority!

The EU has a wonderful opportunity here to begin to develop a truly sustainable vision for itself. Something that would differentiate us from the USA and that would make people feel their leaders are really looking to a future in which quality of life in its fullest sense is the goal. They would find that exciting and positive.

The Greens have set out ideas in the document we have produced, which we believe can help.

We want to see every Spring Summit as a Sustainability Summit. That is what the world needs, not a sterile emphasis on competivity which means winners and losers; sustainability means we all win and that has to be a better option.

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