Europe faces new Czech

Vladimir Spidla, the would-be European commissioner for employment, was given top marks by members of the European parliament during a three-hour grilling on his suitability for the post.

Spidla, the former Czech prime minister, stoutly defended the EU’s so-called left-leaning ‘social model’ while insisting that its application should be more flexible in future. He told members of the parliament’s committees on employment and on women that far from being a handicap to progress, the model was essential for Europe’s political and economic future.

“The EU’s social model is an essential element in our competitiveness,” Spidla said. “Anyone who believes abandoning it will make us more competitive champions is wrong.”

Spidla brought a briefcase of orthodoxies to the hearing: the need to diminish unemployment in the 25-nation union; the priority of fighting social exclusion; the improvement of equal opportunities; and an insistence on better training. These elements, he said, had to be seen in the context of declining demographic trends across Europe. If the target of making the EU the world’s most competitive economy by 2010 – the Lisbon Strategy – was to be met, then better training methods and an improvement in conditions that encourage the free movement of labour must remain a priority for the incoming Commission, which takes up its responsibilities on 1 November.

After the hearing, Harlem Desir, a French Socialist MEP, said: “He will defend the social dialogue and social protection measures, both of which are strong elements in the European identity.”

The endorsement of the commissioner-designate seems to be a foregone conclusion. As he is only one of six of the new commissioners to have left-wing credentials, the socialists’ enthusiasm for this candidate is unsurprising.

Indeed, Spidla is an ex-Communist, although he long ago rejected Marxism. He has described the former Communist system in his country as “40 years of deviant development”.

With cropped grey hair and rimless glasses, he has the humourless aspect of the former French premier Lionel Jospin – someone he has admired for years. If appearance alone could define a safe pair of hands, this tri-lingual historian from a middle-class background is the man. But it is also hard to disagree with one of his colleagues who said: “Spidla is somewhat lacking in the charisma department.”

One innovation he promised was the introduction of impact assessments on any extension of policy in employment and social affairs – an imitation of environmental impact assessments that are standard practice these days.

Spidla thinks this would help to weaken some of the objections to social measures voiced by employers, and reduce controversy when new policies are put forward for consideration by the EU Council of Ministers.

He said there should be more flexible pension systems throughout the EU, but cautioned against any notions of unifying social security systems, emphasising that “diversity is very important for everyone”.

Spidla was also asked about the EU Working Time Directive by several committee members. Describing the present proposed amendments to the directive as a compromise, he said work on it would continue under his watch.

Ideally, Spidla said, the final wording should be completed during the first half of 2005. “If there are other amendments or suggestions put forward, I shall be flexible in considering them,” he said. “But the positions on both sides of the argument are very clear.”

Regarding the 10-year-old Works Council Directive – which he agreed was still not fully in effect – Spidla suggested that the whole subject should be revisited to see if further text amendments would get the measure back on track.

In response to a challenge about disabilities, he promised his commitment to drafting a proposal for a disability directive, but remained vague about its contents.

In all, the commissioner was given a relatively easy ride by the committee – it was certainly more like a getting-to-know-you session than an interrogation.

Greater challenges no doubt lie ahead for the former Czech prime minister as he gets to grips with employment issues across the EU, and observers of all political persuasions will be watching closely.

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