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13.1.  The need for a European social policy

    The objectives of the common social policy are very close to those of the common regional policy. The latter is directed towards improving the lot of the least-favoured regions of the European Union, the social policy that of its poorest citizens. Both seek to even out the economic and social imbalances in the Union and to ensure that the advantages ensuing from the functioning of the common market are shared amongst all the countries and all the citizens. Several of their measures are complementary, and their financial instruments are closely coordinated in order to put them into effect.

    A common social policy, which was necessary for the social cohesion of the Community as early as the stage of the progressive implementation of the common market, was provided for in vague terms in the EEC Treaty. Although its signatories stated that they were resolved to ensure social progress by common action and affirmed as the essential objective the improvement of the living and working conditions of their peoples, they remained entirely independent in the field of social policies. They placed their faith above all in the automatic improvement of social conditions, relying on the knock-on effect that economic integration would produce. They were not wrong in that, but they were not completely right either.

    It is certain that the progressive integration of the economies in itself promotes the convergence of the social conditions of the States of the European Community/Union. The most characteristic social features of the Community during the first forty years of its existence have been the moderate growth of the population, increased life expectancy and shorter working life, the widespread extension of compulsory education and the mass entry of women into economic activities. In addition to those general phenomena there have been structural changes within sectors and sectoral movements from agriculture to industry and from the latter to the service industries. Thus, it is not by chance that the problems of employment, social security and the vocational training of certain categories of workers (the young, the old and women) are priorities in every Member State. It is, therefore, true that the closer the economic conditions become in a multinational integration scheme, the more the social problems of the member states become similar and more similar, not to say common, solutions become necessary. Likewise, the free movement of workers and transnational trade union contacts have promoted a degree of upward levelling of wages, social benefits and social protection.

    Increased prosperity brought about largely by European integration, did not, however, resolve all the Community's social problems. It even made some of them more acute or gave rise to new ones, viz. problems of disadvantaged regions and categories of persons who do not participate fully in the general progress; problems of structural unemployment; problems relating to the distribution of income and wealth; contradictions between economic and social values and, on occasion, dramatic changes in lifestyle with negative consequences for the behaviour of young people. In view of these problems, the Treaty on the European Union calls for a a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress (Article 3 § 3 TEU). The Treaty on the functioning of the EU declares that the Union and the Member States shall have as their objectives the promotion of employment, improved living and working conditions, so as to make possible their harmonisation while the improvement is being maintained, proper social protection, dialogue between management and labour, the development of human resources with a view to lasting high employment and the combating of exclusion (Article 151 TFEU).

    A dynamic social policy is essential for an efficient industrial policy [see chapter 17]. Adequate vocational training for workers and the improvement of the occupational and geographical mobility of labour are prerequisites for the efficiency of European industry. Technological progress and improved training lead to the strengthening of the requirements as regards social protection, to worker participation and to the improvement of the quality of life and of work. At the same time, however, technological progress gives rise to numerous structural changes accompanied by tension on the labour market. A common approach must be taken to these phenomena so as not to give rise to distortions of competition within the common market. In fact, given the increasing economic interdependence of the member countries, any one of their number which decided to carry out a social reform on its own might handicap some of its industrial sectors or even its economy in general.

    At the dawn of the 21st century, the European societies are faced with new common challenges. The globalisation of trade and production, the impact of new technologies on work, society and individuals, the high level of unemployment of some categories and the ageing of the population are all combining to put severe strains on the social fabric of all the Member States. While the basic responsibility in these areas lies with the Member States, full cooperation between them, within the Union, plays an important role in ensuring that the national systems of social protection do not develop in ways which conflict with overall Union employment objectives or standards, distort conditions of competition, or inhibit the free movement of people within the Union. A Commission Green Paper launched a public debate on how labour law can evolve to support the Lisbon strategy's objective of achieving sustainable growth with more and better jobs [COM/2006/708]. The Commission has also launched a wide consultation on the social issues and challenges facing Europe, including globalisation and demographic questions [COM (2007) 63].

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