In the second part of the EPSCO Council (Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs) held on 5 October 2015 in Luxembourg, European Ministers for Labour and Social Affairs discussed how to integrate the long-term unemployed into the labour market and the main challenges on adequate retirement incomes. Prior to the meeting chaired by Nicolas Schmit, Minister of Labour, and Romain Schneider, Minister of Social Security, participants discussed the impact of migration flows on European labour markets during a lunch meeting.
Impact of the refugee crisis on European labour markets
At the press conference, the Minister of Labour Nicolas Schmit said that discussions on the issue of the refugee crisis have been 'very productive and instructive', pointing out that they had 'well reflected the extent' of the challenge faced by the EU, namely 'particularly high levels of migration flows in a number of countries'.
The discussions allowed them to 'assess the situation' in various Member States, said the Minister, who noted that several of his counterparts were able to describe the efforts in their countries 'to better manage these flows'. 'We insisted in this context on efforts to ensure the successful integration of refugees', said Nicolas Schmit, who noted that the most affected countries also reiterated the need for a united EU policy response.
Access to the labour market for refugees was also mentioned in this context, and Nicolas Schmit noted a significant disparity in existing legislation throughout the Member States. While some countries do not impose specific rules for refugees to enter the labour market, others can impose a waiting time of almost a year, according to the Minister. 'A degree of harmonisation at EU level would likely be worthwhile', said Nicolas Schmit.
The Minister said the message from the discussions is that Member States' expect support from the European Commission and the EU', particularly in terms of human and financial resources, as well as a joint approach. 'This is very positive, in my opinion', said Nicolas Schmit. 'In the beginning, Europe tackled this issue in quite a disorganised manner, perhaps surprised by the scale of the challenge, and we could feel that there was a gradual awareness that this challenge can only be faced if we work together and show more solidarity', said the Minister.
Nicolas Schmit further indicated that Ministers for Labour were rightly preoccupied with this issue, and that it was not possible to claim to be addressing the refugee crisis while at the same time ignoring the problems of those living on the margins of society. 'We therefore need a global approach, which will not be easy, but the message is that the solution is to be found in solidarity, or there will be no real solution to the challenges', he added.
Integrating the long-term unemployed into the labour market
Ministers held a policy debate on the recommendation concerning the integration of the long-term unemployed into the labour market which the Commission presented on 17 September 2015, and on which the Presidency hopes to reach a political agreement at the EPSCO Council on 7 December 2015.
Nicolas Schmit stressed that the long-term unemployed were 'victims of the crisis' which may be understood as a 'severe form of social exclusion'. Relating in particular to the refugee crisis and their integration in the labour market, the Minister reiterated the 'strong message' that the EU continues to 'make all possible efforts to integrate the long-term unemployed into the labour market'. 'The Presidency will make every effort to adopt the recommendation of the Commission at the next EPSCO Council', he said.
The Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen, recalled that today there are 12 million people in Europe that have been out of work in the last 12 months. The Commissioner also detailed the Commission's proposal in this field: first, it will encourage the more active registration of the long-term unemployed; secondly, job seekers who have been unemployed for over 12 months can benefit from individual monitoring; and thirdly, a professional integration agreement will be offered before 18 months of unemployment, with a concrete and personalised plan for reintegration into the labour market.
Ministers also discussed the use of European funds in support of the refugees crisis and their integration into the labour market. In this respect, Marianne Thyssen recalled the existence of the European Social Fund and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived, while stating that she is ready to cooperate with Member States in this context and under these Funds. The Commissioner also emphasised that measures to facilitate the integration of refugees into the labour market should not undermine the impact of European funds to those who are already benefiting from them, such as the long-term unemployed.
Adequate incomes for pensioners
The Council approved the key messages of the report 'Adequate retirement incomes in the context of an ageing society' by means of conclusion.
This report highlights the aspect of adequacy of income in old age and, with the sustainability perspective already examined by Ecofin, it gives a comprehensive overview of the challenges faced.
The ageing report endorsed by the Ecofin Council in May 2015, foresees that despite the very sharp increase in the number of people aged 65 years or more, the average expenditure on pensions for EU of 28 should not be higher in 2060 than in was in 2013.
The 'Adequate retirement incomes in the context of an ageing society' report emphasises, however, that risks in terms of sustainability of public finances may result not only from the absence of reforms to reduce future expenditure, but from the converse situation, where reforms mean that an increasing number of older people do not receive an adequate income, i.e. an income which enables them to lead a decent life, noted the Council. It is therefore of the utmost importance to ensure that pension adequacy is monitored both from the point of view of constraints on public finances and from that of social objectives.
EU Commissioner Marianne Thyssen stressed the progress of pension reforms in the EU during the public session. Her message is that 'recent pension reforms have focused on ensuring pensions for a much larger older population without destabilising public finances. This can only be achieved if the large majority of people concerned are offered enough opportunities to continue working until they reach the legal retirement age, which is set to rise across the EU'.
Marianne Thyssen stressed the fact that some Member States could still experience public pension maintenance after retirement, which will increasingly depend on supplementary pensions, collected on an individual basis or as part of a company scheme. Close cooperation among Member States is necessary regarding supplementary pensions, including issues relating to their availability, development and provision. According to national practices, social partners will have an important role to play in this respect, said the Commissioner
She also referred to the special attention that needs to be paid to 'those who have not been working for long or who are on low incomes' to be able to pay their supplementary pensions, citing 'older women and men, who, for personal or work related reasons, are unable to remain in the labour market until the legal retirement age'. She welcomed that the report advocated 'social protection mechanisms which are well targeted to those persons'.