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European Parliament vote signals victory for Social Europe

22 February 2006 - 9:45am

The European Parliament struck a blow for social Europe last week with its vote on the controversial Services Directive...

Trade unionists were last week celebrating a victory for workers and public services as the European Parliament voted on 16 February to amend the controversial Services Directive. The EP voted, by a large majority, to approve a compromise reached by the main political groups in the European Parliament, effectively burying – at least for now – the initial 'Bolkestein' proposal that caused great concern amongst unions across Europe. The original text of the Directive aimed to create a legal framework to eliminate barriers to the establishment of services, with little emphasis on protection of workers or consumers. TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, welcomed the Parliament’s vote, saying:

'This is a major victory for social Europe delivered primarily by union campaigning across the EU. While we still have some points to press, the Parliament’s main left wing and right wing groups have voted to continue the key principle that makes Europe more socially progressive than the US – that we should balance the economic benefits of liberalising trade with the protection of people at work, consumers and the environment. Today’s amendments add up to a series of pragmatic changes that should help ensure that the Services Directive does not undermine social Europe.'

John Monks, former TUC General Secretary and now General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), said:

'This vote shows clearly that MEPs have succeeded in finding a compromise that allows for the opening up of the services market, while at the same time safeguarding the European Social Model, even if there still are improvements to be made.'

Amongst the reasons for the welcome reaction from unions to the European Parliament’s vote were:

  • The exclusion of labour law from the scope of the Directive
  • The exclusion of health services (both public and private health services) from the Directive and services of general interest
  • The abolition of the Country of Origin Principle (now renamed the ‘Freedom to Provide Services’ principle), enabling Member States to exercise better supervision and apply rules to protect the public interest.

Although the European Parliament’s vote has been heralded as a victory for social Europe and European workers, this is not the end of the matter. Because the Services Directive comes under the EU’s Co-Decision Procedure, the European Parliament’s amendments to the Directive will be referred to the European Commission’s Council of Ministers for approval before being referred back to the European Parliament for a second reading. If a common position can be reached the Directive will be agreed. Until this happens, the progress achieved on the Directive from a European trade union point of view should be seen as being only the first stage. This progress needs to be consolidated and protected against the likely development of other initiatives in the services arena, such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), conducted under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. 

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