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EU Spring Summit: Which Development for Europe?

NGOs and trade unions critical of Lisbon Strategy

When European heads of state and government will meet 23 to 24 March 2006 in Brussels for their traditional Spring Summit the renewed Lisbon Strategy on competitiveness will be once again high on the agenda. Yet NGOs and trade unions regard the strategy ("European Strategy for Growth and Jobs") as unbalanced and heavily biased towards business interests. Rainer Falk comments.


Sometimes coincidences can be significant. Just one day before the summit, on 22 March, the European Commission will publish a communication on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The proposal envisages the creation of an open “European Alliance” to make Europe “a pole of excellence on CSR in support of a competitive and sustainable enterprise and market economy” (>>> Implementing the partnership for growth and jobs: Making Europe a Pole of Excellence on Corporate Social Responsibility [158 KB] ). Whereas CSR is mainly seen as “a business opportunity” creating “win-win situations” for companies and society, trade unions and non-governmental organisations are largely excluded from the initiative.

* CSR as a business opportunity
The “European alliance for CSR” has been forged by Industry and Enterprise Commissioner Günter Verheugen who has moved the Commission steadily towards a pro-business view of CSR during the last year. Originally, the Commission wanted to improve social standards and to tackle the negative impacts of businesses on environment and society. A multi-stakeholder forum on CSR was held in Brussels in 2004 (>>> Commission Final Report). But instead of building on this efforts Verheugen has organised secret meetings with company representatives excluding other stakeholders. According to the draft communication, a copy of which has been received by WORLD ECONOMY & DEVELOPMENT in brief, the alliance would now be a loose “political umbrella for new and existing CSR initiatives by large companies (and) small and medium-sized enterprises” that do not require businesses to show results of such initiatives (see box).

Excerpt from the Draft Communication: A European Alliance for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility)

The Commission aims to encourage the further take-up of CSR amongst European enterprises, and to increase support and recognition for CSR as a contribution to sustainable development and the Growth and Jobs Strategy. To achieve this, the Commission believes that a new political approach is necessary. The Commission continues to attach importance to dialogue with all stakeholders, but also wishes to give recognition to enterprises as the primary actors in CSR. The main element of this new approach is therefore an innovative partnership with enterprises, which will take the form of a European Alliance for CSR...

The Alliance has an open nature and European enterprises of all sizes are invited to voluntarily express their support. In order to remain accessible to as many European enterprises as possible and to avoid the creation of new bureaucratic burdens for business, the Alliance is not a legal instrument to be signed by enterprises. Rather, it is a political umbrella for new or existing CSR initiatives by large companies, SMEs and their stakeholders.

The Commission expects the Alliance to have a significant impact on the attitude of European enterprises towards CSR and on their positive engagement with social and environmental issues. In so doing, it should create new partners and new opportunities for stakeholders in their efforts to promote CSR. The Alliance is therefore a vehicle for mobilising the resources and capacities of European enterprises and their stakeholders in the interests of sustainable development, economic growth and job creation. The voluntary commitment of European business to the Alliance and the supportive role of the Commission towards CSR within its policies where appropriate will strengthen the visibility, credibility and delivery of CSR within the EU and abroad. The results of the Alliance should be understood as a voluntary business contribution to achieving the goals of the relaunched Lisbon Strategy.

Source: European Commission

The EU’s CSR alliance is a case in point. A new NGO coalition on corporate accountability (including groups from Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, France and Spain) claimed that Commissioner Verheugen “hijacked” the process. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) also attacked the Commission for ignoring requests for consultation on the communication before it was presented. The move, however, is in line with the European Commission’s tendency under José Manuel Barroso to increasingly narrow the focus on competitiveness and growth to the detriment of social and sustainable development. This tendency has been reinforced by a communication from President Barroso in agreement with Vice-President Verheugen for the Spring Summit (>>> Working together for growth and jobs: A new start for the Lisbon strategy). Ironically, “Building a Europe of Excellence” is also the motto of the 4th European Business Summit which the Commission is celebrating on 16/17 March 2006 in Brussels together with the industrialists’ lobby group Union of Industry of the European Communities (UNICE).

* “Not less but a different and better Europe”
Two weeks ago, European trade unions, environmental organisations and social NGOs joined forces to urge EU leaders to put social and environmental objectives “back at the heart” of the Lisbon Strategy at their spring summit. In a joint statement the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the Platform of European Social NGOs (Social Platform) argue that Europe must be driven by wider concerns than the business-friendly agenda of internal market and deregulation. In this sense the organisations call for “not less Europe, but rather a different and better Europe”.

The joint statement looks at how far the EU’s renewed Lisbon Strategy really respects the commitment to achieve sustainable development, and states: “The revised Lisbon Strategy on growth and jobs is incomplete and imbalanced. It is putting the main emphasis on the economic pillar of competitiveness, mainly focusing on building an internal market that has no barriers for business. And meanwhile, it is forgetting that the forces of competition need a social and ecological framework to keep them away from cut-throat competition, social dumping, environmental degradation and the depletion of natural capital.”

Attempting to restore the original three-pillar strategy of Lisbon – putting economic competitiveness, social cohesion and sustainable development of Europe on an equal footing – the civil society organisations presented their own set of proposals to help steer the economy into the right social and environmental direction while ensuring the creation of prosperity and employment. These proposals focus on the four-fold priorities of the Commission for the Lisbon Agenda and insist on the following points: (1) giving priority to balanced sustainable development objectives in the Commission’s research and development programmes; (2) taking a balanced approach towards regulation and the design of better regulation initiatives which avoid favouring cost savings for business over safeguarding people’s health and environmental and social protection; (3) presenting a roadmap for social justice and fair working conditions to make productive and positive change happen; and finally (4) adopting a consistent approach towards energy issues at EU level, focusing on achieving sustainable development.

* What is “at the heart” of the Lisbon Strategy?
It is open to discussion, however, whether social and environmental objectives have ever been “at the heart of the Lisbon Strategy” since the EU has decided in 2000 to make Europe the “most competitive economy of the world”. As political economist Kees van der Pijl from Sussex University concludes in a recent analysis for the New Left Review: “The basic problem with the EU’s Lisbon strategy is that it takes a destructive approach to Europe’s existing strengths and places all its hopes on attempting to compete with the US by adopting the American model wholesale. The large industrial economies of continental Western Europe have all been plunged into a structural crises as a result ...”

In fact, even in terms of growth and jobs the Lisbon Strategy has not been very successful so far, and the renewed strategy does not seem to perform much better. A brand-new report by mainstream economists Jean Pisani-Ferry and André Sapir from the Bruegel Institute in Brussels (>>> Last Exit to Lisbon) exposes the gap between the promises made at EU summits that member states will co-ordinate their economic reforms and the fact that many national governments, particularly in the biggest member states, pay only lip services to the idea. The co-ordination of the preparation of the national reform plans was delegated to senior or even mid-level civil servants, the study points out.

The renewed version of the Lisbon Strategy, decided last year, is considerably less ambitious with less objectives and benchmarks, and concentrates almost exclusively on growth and jobs. The social quality of jobs and the ecological sustainability of growth in this agenda are pushed to the background even more than before. The declared intention to cut back on red tape and to reduce the number of European rules and provisions may be welcome in theory, in practice it includes attacks on standards for health or environmental protection. What remained after such correction of “over-ambitious visions” for Europe is the trust in open markets, deregulation, competition, and flexibility. As the Group of Alternative European Economists analysed last year, in reality the new modesty of the Lisbon Strategy reflects and reinforces the core programme of neo-liberalism (>>> Alternative Economists Against European Minimalism).

If the analysis is right a much more radical approach would be needed. It is good to remind European politicians of the original rhetoric of the Lisbon Strategy. The real challenge remains to establish a real – not rhetoric – balance between the economic, social, and ecological dimensions of the European integration process. Unfortunately, it seems that the up-coming Spring Summit will contribute little to nothing to redress the current imbalance.

Rainer Falk is the publisher of World Economy & Development in brief.

Find more on the subject:
* On this website >>> Europe: After the Debacle and Before the Storm
* Official Website of the >>> Austrian European Presidency
* Websites of >>> ETUC, >>> EEB and >>> Corporate Accountability

(Posted: 16 March 2006)

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