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Reflections on social Europe

In the midst of serious recession "now is the time to reaffirm the EU’s core principles of openness,

There has never been a better time to reflect on Europe’s social dimension. Twenty years after the European Social Charter was first conceived, and following a period of sustained growth, we now face the most serious economic recession for 60 years.

The EU faces a huge challenge: how to respond to the economic crisis in a way that directly benefits all of Europe’s citizens. It’s not just about providing well targeted help to get families and sound businesses through the recession. We should also be working now to prepare Europe’s citizens to compete in the low carbon economy of the future. Above all, we need to ensure that no-one gets left behind. The answer is certainly not to tear up the EU’s rule-book and start again. Now is the time to reaffirm the EU’s core principles of openness, opportunity and solidarity.

With people losing their jobs, watching their savings shrink and struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments, the EU needs to prove that it can make a difference to the quality of their lives. That’s why the EU had to deliver a swift, decisive response when it became obvious that the financial crisis of last summer was going to affect each and every one of us.

What we saw from European leaders last autumn was an unprecedented level of coordination to stimulate our economies and to help reduce the severity and length of the global recession. The 200 billion euro recovery package agreed in December has done far more to increase business and consumer confidence than we could have achieved by acting alone. This is a good example of where the EU can add real value. In fact, if the EU hadn’t existed before the recession, we would have had to invent it.

We’ve also seen a renewed commitment in recent weeks to keeping markets open and resisting misguided calls for protectionism. Reigniting global trade and investment will be crucial to a swift recovery and the EU needs to ensure that the rules of the single market are upheld.

But open markets will not be enough. Strong societies depend on more than economic growth and to create a fair and sustainable future for all, we need to keep sight of Europe’s social dimension. There is no reason why the two should be contradictory.

The Labour government recognises the value of a strong EU social dimension and that is why we signed up to the Social Chapter in 1997. There is much we can be proud of. Through legislation and joined-up action by national governments, we have helped to take down the barriers to labour market mobility, enabling people and companies to work and travel freely through the EU. We have put in place minimum workplace standards to ensure decent working conditions and to outlaw workplace discrimination across the EU.

The Lisbon Strategy for Jobs and Growth has helped to boost employment, particularly among women and older workers. And work is progressing on the package of social measures proposed by the Commission last summer, which are built around the themes of opportunity and solidarity and are designed to help ensure that as Europe moves forward, no one is left behind.

We now need to increase the pace of reform in Europe: offering people support in difficult times, but matched with the expectation that they should not fall out of touch with the world of work. Rather than a system built on outdated notions about insulating workers and companies from competition, we need a modern, effective social dimension, which combines fairness with flexibility, and equips people to access the skills and opportunities that they need to compete in the new low carbon global economy.

We must also be clear about where action at the EU level on social initiatives can add value. Pockets of unemployment and deprivation are often most effectively identified and targeted at the local level. To tackle these problems, Europe needs modern and strategic forms of social partnership which include working with local authorities, the private sector and the third sector.

Too often this debate has been framed as an “either/or” question. But it’s clear to me that there doesn’t have to be a choice between the single market and social Europe – we don’t need to decide between putting people, or the economy, first. By focusing on people, we can help give Europe the skills it needs to prosper. By focusing on jobs and growth, we can help give people the opportunities they need to come out of poverty.

Strong societies are important for addressing all the challenges we face today, and Europe must not lose sight of this.

Caroline Flint MP is Minister for Europe in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office