B R U S S E L S
And if social protection is back in fashion, surely Brussels should forget about subsidiarity and resume its old role of setting standards for all of Europe. Padraig Flynn, a loquacious Irish former trade-union official who is now the EUs social-affairs commissioner, certainly seems happier than he did a year ago. He has recently proposed a directive extending employment rights to part-time workers, and an expansion of the maximum working-hours directive that so enraged the previous British government. In the pipeline is a directive partly shifting the burden of proof in sex-discrimination cases to employers; an extension of the EU requirement to set up works councils to smaller firms; and, post-Vilvoorde, measures on consulting workers over plant closures.
Actually, there is less to all this than meets the eye. The commissions new activism is more gesture than substance. And most governments accept, though they are loth to admit it, that economic revival depends on less regulation and lower taxes.
Mr Flynn seems to accept this too. He says the EU no longer regards legislation as a first resort; it weighs more carefully the harm new directives could cause. Europes legislative procedure has also changed for the better. Instead of writing rules on its own, the commission sends most draft rules to representatives of the social partnersemployers, trade unions and consumers. That may sound like a version of the consensus system that stalls reform in places like Germany, but it is an improvement over procedures that gave employers virtually no say in crafting EU legislation.
Mr Flynn also points out that Europes social legislation has become more proportional: it sets broad guidelines but leaves detailed rules for countries to fix themselves. The maximum working-hours directive, for instance, will leave governments free to decide whether they define an on-call junior doctor as working or not. In some cases, the guidelines will be broad enough to make new directives virtually meaninglessno bad thing, perhaps.
So what can Mr Flynn do to solve Europes biggest problem, unemployment? Not much. He has some kind words to say about employability, a new euphemism for labour-market deregulation and training. But he thinks that the biggest cause of unemployment is macroeconomic.
Some of Europes unemployment has no doubt been caused by lack of demand and slow growth, and by austerity measures imposed by countries trying to qualify for Europes single currency. Yet the bigger causes of joblessness in Europe are structural, and only national governments can solve them. It is national rules on minimum wages, hiring and firing and the like that now gum up the jobs market. It is national social-security and other payroll taxes that make workers too expensive to take on. It is schools that fail to educate would-be workers. And it is national opposition to privatisation, to the scrapping of subsidies and to deregulation of energy and other markets that slows growth. This willor ought to bethe message from the November jobs summit, where Mr Flynn should be little more than an onlooker.
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