Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to congratulate the OECD i on its 50th anniversary. Over the years the European Commission has worked closely with the OECD on almost all the aspects of social policy being discussed today. I look forward to continuing to work with the OECD on these issues.
Today most OECD countries are faced with difficult policy choices when seeking to strike a balance between achieving fiscal consolidation, creating economic growth that brings high employment and quality jobs, and providing support for people affected by the economic crisis.
Today’s social challenges need to be seen in a broader international perspective — I am thinking of the G20 i discussions on new global governance to provide strong, sustainable and balanced growth.
From the European Union's standpoint, the challenges are huge. In spite of the EU’s prompt response, the crisis has taken a heavy toll.
23 million people are unemployed in the EU — 7 million higher than before the crisis. The number of unemployed young people is up by 1.3 million, many of whom have never had a chance to acquire any work experience. And around 80 million people are below the poverty line.
On the positive side, the crisis has shown that our social protection systems have helped alleviate the social and economic effects of the recession. And some of our Member States have introduced short-time working arrangements to allow firms to reduce production without laying off workers.
While this is a difficult period for the European Union, there are signs of recovery. We need to see that this budding recovery bears fruit — that it generates more jobs and better jobs too.
But how can we do this when budgets are tight and cuts are the order of the day?
The EU has developed a strategy for building the sort of prosperous and fairer Europe people want to live in by the year 2020.
Europe 2020 i is about preventing macro-economic imbalances and undertaking growth-enhancing structural reforms. It seeks to realise the economy’s full potential and deliver both more and better jobs in the future.
One of Europe 2020’s five headline targets is to raise the employment rate to 75%. And it sets a target for reducing the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion by at least 20 million over the next decade.
The crisis has focused the EU's attention on striking the right balance between security and flexibility on the labour market. This means making social protection employment-friendly and gearing it to facilitating transitions in employment.
It means stronger active labour-market measures and more investments in skills that match labour-market needs. That is one of the drivers behind the Europe 2020 "Agenda for New Skills and Jobs".
Another key challenge for the European Union — and for most OECD countries — is to get young people into jobs. The EU has set a goal: better education outcomes for young people, and higher participation in employment. That is what the Europe 2020 "Youth on the Move" initiative is about.
Increasing women’s labour market participation is another important goal. In practice, female employment can be stimulated by providing good childcare, developing flexible work arrangements, including for those returning from parental leave, and removing disincentives to work — for example by adjusting taxation.
Another Europe 2020 initiative — "The European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion" — seeks to help Member States to meet the EU's poverty reduction target. This entails mobilising social protection, employment and education policies.
With the trend to lower public budgets in the coming decade, a key aim is greater efficiency. Focusing on social innovation should help identify where resources will have the biggest impact.
So how does the European Union intend to support Europe 2020’s social goals?
The EU provides financial support for action to raise employment and tackle poverty. This comes from the European Social Fund, our main financial instrument for promoting employment and social inclusion, which will spend 10 billion Euro a year from 2007 to 2013, and from the European Regional Development Fund, which helps with infrastructure and social and educational services.
Given the EU’s population trends — with rising life expectancy combined with low fertility — and the impact of the crisis, our current rules applying to pension systems are untenable. All our Member States have undertaken reforms over the last few years, but more decisive measures will be needed to keep our pension systems socially adequate and financially sustainable.
In the same vein, we will need comprehensive active ageing strategies, involving investments in the employability of older workers and life-long learning, and taking their health and safety needs workers into account.
2012 will be European Year for Active Ageing, which will help raise people’s awareness of this issue in Europe.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The successful implementation of Europe 2020 will call for ownership and constructive dialogue at all levels.
That is why a solid partnership approach is a core element of Europe 2020 and its flagship initiatives. I am convinced that civil society organisations and the social partners have an indispensable contribution to make.
The role of the social partners is a key aspect of European social policy, and a crucial component of the European social model. I cannot overemphasise the constructive role they can and should play in such processes as restructuring and generally in our efforts to achieve greater social justice.
The European Union needs to keep its public finances sustainable. Europe 2020 seeks to do this in particular by making social policy more effective and employment-friendly, and so gearing our economy to building a fairer future.
It encourages me to see so many areas where the EU’s and the OECD’s approaches to social and employment policy are convergent.