One of the objectives of the European Union is to promote economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among Member States (Articles 3 TEU and 174 TFEU) [see section 12.1.2]. Whereas the common regional policy deals mainly with economic and territorial cohesion, the common social policy tries to strengthen social cohesion. Article 151 of the Treaty on the functioning of the EU (ex Article 136 TEC) declares that the Union and the Member States, having in mind fundamental social rights, 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 and the development of human resources. This last goal entails effectual education and training policies. Article 151 states also that the objectives of social progress and cohesion that it sets should ensue not only from the functioning of the internal market, which will favour the harmonisation of social systems, but also from the procedures provided for in the Treaties and from the approximation of provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action. However, the measures taken by the Union and the Member States to attain the objectives of Article 151 must take account of the diverse forms of national practices, in particular in the field of contractual relations, and the need to maintain the competitiveness of the Union economy.
To attain social cohesion in the Union minimum social standards are needed, having regard to differing national systems and needs, and to the relative economic strengths of the Member States. The establishment of a framework of basic minimum standards guarantees acceptable social and physical security conditions to all the workers in the Union. At the same time, it provides a bulwark against reducing social standards to increase the competitiveness of the businesses of one Member State and, hence, against using low social standards as an instrument of unfair economic competition. These basic standards should not over-stretch the economically weaker Member States, but they should not prevent the more developed Member States from implementing higher standards.
The effort to complete the single market at the end of the 1980s was to mean a fresh start for the Community's social policy and its financial instrument, the European Social Fund (ESF) [see section 13.3.3]. The Single European Act and, later on, the Maastricht Treaty stated that "in order to promote its overall harmonious development, the Community shall develop and pursue its actions leading to the strengthening of its economic and social cohesion" [Article 158 TEC]. The Structural Funds, and especially the European Social Fund, represent the main instruments for promoting social cohesion within the Union [see section 12.1.2]. As we saw under the heading of coordination of financial instruments in the chapter on regional development, the ESF contributes to the attainment of the Objectives set out set out in the context of the Community structural policy [see section 12.3.1].
The social policy agenda, proposed by the Commission and approved by the Nice European Council in December 2000, provides the roadmap for employment and social policy, translating the policy objectives of the Lisbon strategy for economic and social renewal into concrete measures [COM (2000) 379 and COM (2003) 312, see section 13.3.2]. A high level of social cohesion is central to the Lisbon agenda. Strategies which strive for gender equality, for the eradication of poverty and social exclusion and for the modernisation of social protection systems, in particular pension and healthcare systems, play a key role in this agenda. In short, the Union aims at social progress and cohesion through the specific policies for employment, education and professional training, as well as through the promotion and improvement of living and working conditions, including social protection and social inclusion. These are the subjects examined in the following parts of this chapter.