Diamantopoulou takes the gloves off

Author (Person)
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Series Details Vol 7, No.11, 15.3.01, p11
Publication Date 15/03/2001
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Date: 15/03/01

EU Employment Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou has found herself trading metaphorical blows with French labour minister Elisabeth Guigou on the eve of the Stockholm summit. She tells John Shelley it's a fight she is determined to win

WHEN EU leaders gather next week in Stockholm, two key figures who will not be hobnobbing are European Employment Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou and French minister Elisabeth Guigou.

Perhaps it is fortunate neither of the two social affairs chiefs - who hope to be big players in shaping the outcome of the summit - will participate in the main meeting. If their paths did cross, they would be more likely to exchange blows than rub shoulders.

To say Guigou and Diamantopoulou disagree strongly over the future of the Union's employment policy is putting it mildly. The French labour minister's decision to go public in criticising the Greek Commissioner's ideas has infuriated Diamantopoulou - and now the gloves are off.

It's chic blonde Guigou in the red corner versus sultry black-haired Diamantopoulou in the EU blue. Speaking from her spacious top-floor office at her headquarters on Brussels' Rue Joseph II, it is clear that Diamantopoulou is determined that this is one fight she intends to win.

"I must underline that Mrs Guigou and people from other delegations like the Benelux countries and Italy, have all expressed concerns but they have not come forward with a single positive proposal," she says. "No one has come to me and said you should have had this proposal in or this piece of legislation; they are just making general comments."

Diamantopoulou is specifically referring to remarks made by Guigou last week - and echoed by others - that the Commission's proposals for Stockholm lack ambition when it comes to social affairs and employment policy.

Guigou argues for more legislation in the social field, but Diamantopoulou says the minister's vision is too outdated to cut it in the world of the 'new economy' and the Internet.

"I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are doing," she says, accusing Guigou of bluster. "Just repeating the word social all the time does not mean that we actually move social policy forward."

The spat with Guigou is reminiscent of a similar public bust-up Diamantopoulou had last year with European Central Bank chief economist Otmar Issing. Then it was the other way round, with Issing condemning the Commission for pushing too many 'supranational solutions' to employment problems and Diamantopoulou again angrily responding that he had misunderstood.

The 42-year-old Commissioner from Kozani does advocate some legislative solutions - not enough to satisfy the likes of Guigou, but too many for arch single-marketeers.

"I can't say that the Commission is for or against legislation," she says. "Legislation is one of the possible ways in which we can implement policies. Nowadays we have a number of political tools."

But she isn't afraid to be bold when circumstances warrant. "I believe that in cases of minimum social standards or fundamental rights the Commission must initiate legislation," she says.

With Guigou on the left of her, Issing on the right, Diamantopoulou is stuck in the middle again. But the former civil engineer insists that her policies are not simply a pragmatic means to find a political compromise which everyone can accept, but no one will love.

Instead she insists her plans, notably to encourage the development of true European labour markets, are geared towards giving member states the kind of flexibility they need to adapt in an ever-changing world.

Besides, if she has set out to please everyone then she has failed. Some of her key plans for Stockholm are likely to be rejected.

The summit is billed as the follow-up to the landmark Lisbon gathering last year, at which EU leaders pledged to make Europe "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world". More crucially for Diamantopoulou, they also promised to create "more and better jobs and greater social cohesion".

Heads of state and government pledged to increase employment rates to 70% by 2010. One year on they have gone up by around 1% to a current figure of 62%. Theoretically, that puts the EU on track, creating two million jobs a year.

But the Greek Commissioner warns that Europe cannot always rely on the kind of economic growth it enjoyed last year. She argues that the bloc has not been making enough hay while the sun shines.

"We have positive growth, we have a reduction in unemployment and we have a lot of work being done on labour market reforms," she says. "On the other hand we could have more resolve as far as employment rates are concerned. The member states have not managed to react to the changes of the new economy as the USA has done."

Stockholm, she says, is vital to give the process another push in the right direction. But she worries that what should have been a shove could become more of a gentle nudge if, as seems likely, member states reject a crucial element of her Stockholm proposals - that they set individual national targets on employment levels.

Diamantopoulou says EU nations have been passing the buck on tackling unemployment and that national targets are key if they are to be coerced into improving their individual records.

"National targets would be more than just political, they would provide a very clear way for governments to evaluate their policies," she says. "I believe that national targets would give us very rapid and clear results."

Other proposals the Commission has been considering have been left out of the formal Stockholm submission for fear of their political fallout.

For instance, the socialist Commissioner is hesitant to discuss plans for a common EU social security card and number. No doubt conscious of the problems such a scheme could create for a UK government poised on the brink of a general election, her eyes dart briefly to her spokesman for approval.

"It's something that we have considered, a single card with a single social security number," she says. "We've seen it working in the USA where they have totally different social security systems between states."

Diamantopoulou says even though the idea hasn't been proposed officially it will be worked on by the high-level skills and mobility task force she wants member states to set up at Stockholm. She also wants the task force to consider an EU-wide basic qualification in computer skills.

After Stockholm the next follow-up summit will be held in Barcelona in 2002. Europe can safely assume that the debate over how much the EU should legislate on social and employment policy will still be seething.

But with the task force due to present its results before that meeting, perhaps there will be a few more items to the taste of Madame Guigou.

Major feature on the EU's social policy agenda. EU Employment Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou has found herself trading metaphorical blows with French labour minister Elisabeth Guigou on the eve of the Stockholm summit. She says it's a fight she is determined to win.

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