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THE EUROPEAN Commission yesterday approved an ambitious package of measures to strengthen the EU’s social dimension that will bring the bloc in line with Europe’s new “realities”.

The Renewed Social Agenda is the largest package of cross-cutting measures to be introduced by the Commission, covering a wide range of areas from job creation to poverty among senior citizens and the education of migrants.

Cyprus’ highest ranking permanent member in the Commission, Lenia Samuel, travelled to the island to explain the enormity of the social package.

“Why are we having this agenda? Because European society is undergoing rapid and significant changes and European social policies must keep pace,” said the Deputy Director-General at DG Employment.

“It is the first time we have prepared such a big, comprehensive agenda, with 18 initiatives under one umbrella. It covers all issues that affect the welfare of European citizens, including education, health, migration, intercultural dialogue, information technology and the economy,” said Samuel.

“This is a landmark, but at the same time a realistic agenda which responds to the new realities in the EU,” she added.

Those new realities, including the ups and downs of globalisation, the increasing flows of migration, and the ageing population, “need to go hand-in-hand with social policies”.

“The working population of the EU (ages from 15-64) is set to decrease by 10 per cent by 2050. This means a reduction of 48 million workers. The birth rate is also going down. We cannot afford to lose the workforce in Europe through unjustified discrimination and by depriving them of opportunities,” said the former Labour Ministry permanent secretary.

Samuel noted that migration contributed to employment and prosperity in the EU, forecasting that demand would only increase for migrant workers, especially skilled ones.

“Migration must go hand-in-hand with integration, not just in the market but in our societies.

One way of doing this and ensuring equal opportunities for all in society is to ensure discrimination is eliminated in all its forms. Not just gender, race and ethnicity, but also age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and disabilities. The Commission wants to take this battle beyond employment to other areas. However, the anti-discrimination proposals are restricted to the commercial world and not private transactions.

“If an old lady wants to rent out a room, we cannot tell her what to do, but a hotel, for instance, cannot refuse a room to a couple because they are homosexual,” said Samuel.

One in seven Europeans has said they experienced discrimination at some point in their lives.

Other steps to improve Europe’s social face include strengthening access to services (like health and education), and to support services for those who need it. “We need to show solidarity between persons, regions and member states.”

Around 16 per cent of EU citizens currently live under the poverty line, accounting for 78 million people, 19 million of whom are children.

Cyprus has one of the lowest rates for child poverty, at 13 per cent, while the rate of senior citizens living below the poverty threshold is one of the highest at 51 per cent.

“Many of the young are deprived of opportunities in education, and are discriminated at work in terms of pay and job security. All citizens have equal rights, we cannot tolerate obstacles to personal growth in society,” said the Deputy Director-General.

The new directives being proposed by the Commission will require member state governments to ensure all have the same social protection, access to education, employment and goods and services, including housing.

“With our proposals, we are ending the hierarchy of discrimination, ending the difference among member states in the protection afforded,” she added.

Samuel rejected the notion that greater protection equalled a less competitive economy: “These are just minimum standards. The Scandinavian countries already have this and they are quite competitive and social. You can’t force everyone to do it from the beginning, but we can’t say we are a modern society if some of our citizens cannot participate in society.”

Other measures aim to strengthen the knowledge and skills of employees as well as lure more women into the workforce

Again, Cyprus has one of the highest participation of women in the workforce, 62.5 per cent compared to the EU average of 57.2 per cent. However, the EU average wage gap between men and women is 15 per cent, in Cyprus, this is 25 per cent, also one of the highest in Europe. The new integrated social package hopes to tackle these wage gaps and discriminatory policies.

“With this agenda, we show our determination to give priority to economic and social development, to create wealth but to allow everybody to benefit from it,” said Samuel.

Another measure involves improving cross-border health care and clarifying the rights of patients across the EU.

Now, a patient in Cyprus can have the same rights to health care in other member states that they are afforded in their own country. The EU wants to build on this by encouraging more interaction among doctors within different member states. So, for example, a doctor in Nicosia can send an MRI scan to a doctor in Berlin for his opinion, without the patient having to travel to Germany.

The package will be presented to the European Parliament in the near future where it will be subject to debate and possible amendment, until a final draft will be proposed and eventually passed.

After that, the onus is on the member states to adopt the laws and implement them, usually within a two year period.

By Stefanos Evripidou Cyprus Mail 4 July, 2008

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