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Social policy

 

Social protection

Social protection includes the entire area for the coordination of the social security systems, which is based on the binding legal bases for all Member States.  The activities at the European level also include the areas of social policy, such as the fight against poverty, pension systems and aspects of employment, family and health policy, for which there are no binding legal bases at European level. In this area, three political processes are pursued at European level, which will be brought together under the Austrian Presidency as part of the streamlining process. The first step was taken in January 2005 when the first Joint Report on Social Protection and Social Inclusion was presented by the European Commission. However, the area of health care and long-term care was not included in the 2005 joint report.

The next EU report on social protection and social inclusion, which is to be tabled under the Austrian Presidency, will also deal with this important area. The current Social Protection Report 2005 finally formulates a number of recommendations that are to be taken into account in the framework of cooperation in the area of social protection:

  • The improvement of social protection is an essential precondition for growth, employment and strengthening of social cohesion. In this regard, central concerns are the lengthening of working life and increasing the employment rate
  • Expanding the open coordination to include health and long-term care and tightening all processes should be used to improve implementation and concentrate on synergies between the areas.The significance of key challenges, such as prevention of childhood poverty, support for families with care obligations and fighting homelessness, will be confirmed
  • Employment is central to achieving all the objectives of the Lisbon Strategy
  • Increasing the pensionable age will be a priority

Social security systems in the EU

At the European level, the term “social security” means the service systems of the Member States provided upon the occurrence of one of the following risks: illness and maternity, work accidents and occupational disorders, aging, disability and death (services to survivors), unemployment and family services. As regards the fundamental principle of subsidiarity, the Union has no authority to harmonise the often very different systems of the Member States in the area of social security. However, there is the authority to coordinate these systems for all persons who have migrated within the Union (traditional migrant workers, but also others, such as students and tourists).

For the task of coordinating this, the Council of the European Union approved Regulation 1408/71 and implementation of regulation 574/72, which ensures that anyone who has made use of his right to free movement and right of residence guaranteed by European law does not find him/herself in a worse position as someone who has always lived and worked in one single Member State.

Regulation 1408/71 embodies the following principles:

  • Equal treatment of nationals of the other Member States and their family members (elimination of disadvantages due to migration)
  • Adding up of insurance, employment and residence times from different Member States provided that national regulations require a minimum amount of such times in order to use services
  • Determination of which national regulations a migrant worker is subject to in a concrete case (avoidance of the obligation to make double contributions or the lapse of all insurance protection)
  • Enabling the export of social services in another Member State (e.g. payout of pension even during residence in another Member State, with restrictions, however, on unemployment or special services, such as income-based minimum services)
  • Establishing which Member State is obligated to provide services in a concrete case
  • Enabling services (such as health care) to be used for a person insured in another Member State when staying or residing in another Member State

However, this does not affect the national social security systems; each Member State decides for itself which services it grants under what conditions and in what amount in its social system.

To ensure an up-to-date version that takes into account current legal developments but that also provides for greater transparency in Community law, it is imperative that these instruments be reformed and revised. In the past, Austria has played a major role in European reform, and will continue these reforms during the Austrian Presidency.

Reform of the regulation on coordination of Europe’s social security systems

The applicable Regulation 1408/71 has been continually revised; in addition, the ECJ has contributed more than 400 individual decisions on this regulation on developing law. In 1998 the European Commission submitted a proposal to reform the existing regulatory framework with the goal of simplification and modernisation. After long and difficult negotiations, Regulation 883/2004, the follow-up to Regulation 1408/71 was adopted. However, both a new implementing regulation and supplements and appendices to the new regulation that take into account special features of national law have not been completed. The corresponding proposals by the European Commission can be expected by the end of 2005. These will form the basis for additional discussion on the reform of the system for coordinating the social systems.

Projects during the Austrian EU Presidency

The Austrian Presidency views the successful management of the negotiations on these regulations as a main focus point in the social area and will make efforts towards significant progress in this complex subject to ensure, as quickly as possible, a modern, efficient and transparent regulation of the unrestricted right to free movement of persons and for all citizens within the European Union with no disadvantages. The entry into force of the new Regulation 883/2004 depends on the completion of work in these outstanding areas.

In this work, the main focus will be on questions on the implementation of the new principles (e.g. equality of all services, requirements of the individual Member States that must be harmonised with the general principles), ensuring that the processes are un-bureaucratic, as well as the transition over the long term from the paper-based process to a fully electronic process.

 

Current processes in the area of social protection

An essential component of European social policy is the application of open coordination methods, in which common EU-wide objectives were formulated primarily in the areas of social inclusion (since 2000), pension systems (since 2001) and healthcare and long-term care (since 2004), which the Member States are to implement through national strategies in the national areas of competence.

In these areas, the following objectives are pursued:

Objectives in the process of social inclusion:

  • promoting participation in employment and access by all to resources, rights, goods and services
  • preventing the risks of exclusion
  • action to help the most vulnerable
  • mobilising all relevant bodies

Objectives in the pension system process:

  • appropriateness of pensions – the Member States should ensure that the pension systems are appropriate for their social policy objectives
  • long-term financial viability of the pension systems
  • modernisation of the pension systems in response to the changing needs of the economy, society and the individual

Objectives in the process of healthcare and long-term care:

  • access – ensuring access to high-quality care on the basis of the principles of universality, equity and solidarity
  • quality – promoting the quality of services in order to improve the health and quality of life of the population
  • financial sustainability – ensuring the financial sustainability of generally accessible and high-quality services

These objectives will be pursued in processes that had previously been separate at Member State level through national strategies. At regular intervals, the Member States report on their progress and processes, which in turn are evaluated in Joint Reports by the European Commission and the Council of the European Union.

Projects during the Austrian EU Presidency

Austria emphasises the importance of strengthened cooperation in the area of social protection at the European level and will work during its 2006 Presidency to tighten and streamline the processes of social protection to strengthen the social dimension of the European Union.

In respect of the process of social inclusion which is being implemented, the Austrian Presidency, together with the European Commission, will host the 5th meeting for people experiencing poverty in Brussels in May 2006.

 

Streamlining the processes in social protection

Based on a communication by the European Commission of May 2003, the individual process should be streamlined into a joint process of social protection. This is of major significance in view of the revised Lisbon Strategy, in order to confirm the social dimension as a strong point of European policy and a basic component of the Lisbon Strategy, in spite of the focus on growth and employment. The Austrian Presidency aims to complete this tightening of the processes in the area of social protection.

Concretely, the following measures will be implemented:

  • In future, an integrated, coherent package of joint objectives for the areas of social inclusion, pensions and healthcare and long-term care will be prepared.
  • Reporting will be made in a new joint annual report on social protection and social inclusion, which will be prepared jointly with the Commission and the Council on the basis of a proposal by the Commission.
  • The Member States will submit national reports beginning in autumn 2006, which lay out their national strategies for reaching the joint objectives for all three areas.

Projects during the Austrian EU Presidency

The Austrian Presidency 2006 will discuss the new objectives for overall social protection at the informal meeting of the employment and social affairs ministers in Villach in January 2006 in order to present them to the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Protection Council in March 2006 and for them to be approved by the European Council at its annual spring meeting. The joint objectives will apply for the period of 2006-2008. This will allow the streamlining of the three social protection processes to be completed under the Austrian Presidency and practically applied with the first reports of the Member States by autumn 2006.

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Demographic challenges

The European Union will be facing extraordinary demographic change in the next decades. While most matters relating to demographic development fall within the areas of competence of the Member States, cooperation and exchange of innovative models and strategies help in meeting the EU-wide challenges. Three basic tendencies should be highlighted here:

  • longer life expectancy
  • greater increase in the number of people over the age of 60
  • continued low birth rate, which at its current level of 1.48 children per woman is clearly below the rate necessary to maintain a population of 2.1 children per woman

These developments have grave effects on the population structure, economic growth, labour markets, social protection systems, family structures and the relationship between the generations.

In March 2005 the European Commission presented a green paper in which questions for a Europe-wide discussion process and three priorities of future activities were formulated:

  • Promote demographic growth: focus on the importance of children and the family in society, innovative measures for increasing the birth rate, controlled use of immigration, increase in the employment rate of women and older workers
  • Ensure a balance between the generations by allocating working time over the entire lifetime, fair allocation of resources and by jointly bearing the expenses of financing pensions and healthcare
  • Creation of new transitions between stages of life, e.g. between education and continuing education, employment, retirement and other periods of "economic inactivity"

In respect of the Europe-wide exchange of ideas held with the participation of the citizenry, and which began at a conference in Brussels in July 2005, the European Commission plans to publish a corresponding white paper that aims to present additional possibilities for meeting these demographic challenges.

Projects during the Austrian EU Presidency

During the Austrian Presidency, the future demographic development in the EU will be of major importance. An integral focus in this area will be the role of the family in the future demographic development of Europe and how family and professional life can be balanced.

To this end, a high-level conference titled “Demographic Challenge - Families need Partnerships” will be held in Vienna in February 2006, where the following subjects will be addressed: societal change and demands on the family, striking a balance between family and professional life, partnership between the generations, fair allocation of obligations within the family, family in the economy and the community, family and mobility, roll of fathers in family policy.

In addition, the high-level group Gender Mainstreaming will meet in Vienna in January 2006, and will address the gender-specific sharing of roles and balancing of family and professional life. This will also serve as input for the report by the European Commission on gender mainstreaming. This will also allow emphasis to be placed on the importance of equal opportunities and taking into account gender-specific interests by effective gender mainstreaming for a successful family policy.

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Social services

Services of general interest are services in the interest of all that are provided by or for the state and that are linked to specific obligations for the public good. They are an essential component of the European model of society, especially as regards social and territorial cohesion. They have an especially decisive role in guaranteeing the quality of life of all citizens and overcoming social exclusion and poverty.

Examples of this are network-based utilities such as gas and electricity, postal and telecommunications services, transportation infrastructure, education, healthcare and a large part of the social services including social security.

These types of services exist in tension between the EU internal market and competition law because there are numerous forms of state support or special regulations for the provision of these services, which could hinder, for example, the free movement of services or free competition (in particular prohibitions on cartels, monopolies and subsidies) between the Member States. The unrestricted deregulation of the services market would have broad-ranging effects on social and healthcare services, which should generally balance out the negative effects of the market and on the individual needs of those affected. The provision of and access to social services is an important guarantee for the effective fight against poverty and fighting social exclusion and should, for this reason, be comprehensively assured at European level as well.

The conditions under which these services can be provided, financed and regulated, in view of their essential social function and their necessity for civic harmony, without contradicting the principles of the EU Treaty, has not been clearly determined to date. For several years, there has been a discussion at European level as to how in this area increased legal certainty and a harmonious balance between the social objectives of the services of general interest (access, provision, quality, security, transparency) and the application of competitiveness and internal market regulations can be guaranteed.

Projects during the Austrian EU Presidency

This will be an ongoing discussion during the Austrian Presidency. As preparation for this, in autumn 2005 the European Commission will draft a communication on social services of general interest and commission a study on the contribution of social services in achieving the objectives of the Lisbon Strategy (e.g. social cohesion, promoting social progress, high level of employment).

On the basis of this information, in April 2006 a high-level conference on social services will be held in Vienna, at which the significance of social services for growth and employment, for social cohesion and social inclusion and questions on the application of Community law on these services will be discussed. Essential elements of the services of general interest, such as universal access, high quality, consumer rights, transparency and legal certainty are to be taken into consideration in the discussion. Specific questions, such as consumer interests, monitoring and evaluation, regulations for state subsidies or making use of structural funds for promoting services of general interest will also be discussed here.

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Equality

Regulation on the creation of a European Institute for Gender Equality

On the basis of the social policy agenda, in December 2000 the European Council called on the European Commission to prepare a feasibility study on the creation of a European Institute for Gender Equality. On the basis of the results of the study, the informal meeting of Ministers for Equality in May of 2004 and the statement at the European Council in June 2004, the European Commission presented the proposal that was being negotiated in May 2005. The task of the institution is to support the Commission and the Member States in fighting sex-based discrimination, promoting the equality of sexes and raising awareness among EU citizens on questions of equality through diverse activities.

Review of the implementation of the Beijing Action Platform

At the end of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the UN member states approved an Action Platform (AP) in which they undertook to push ahead the equality of women in all political, social and economic areas. In respect of the conference, the European Council (Madrid, December 1995) called for an annual review of the implementation of the AP in the Member States.

Initiatives to counter violations of women’s rights

Many migrants and women with a migration background who live in the EU are victims of traditional violence (harmful traditional practises - HTP) or are threatened with such violence. These practices range from forced marriage and honour killings to genital mutilation.

In the framework of the Dutch Presidency, a conference of the Ministers for Equality was held in June 2004 on the subject of “Emancipation and Integration of Migrants”, at which Member State projects were introduced.

Goals of the Austrian EU Presidency

  • Exchange of best practice models to fight HTP both at ministerial level and with and between non-governmental organisations
  • Equalisation of rights across the EU
  • Conference of the Ministers for Equality in Brussels with the participation of all members of the Commission working in this area. The results should in the form of conclusions with a joint catalogue of measures
  • Presentation and discussion of the EU position on the subject of harmful traditional practices against women within the international community of the United Nations

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Date: 28.12.2005