When Commission President Barroso proposed the creation of a Fund to combat the so-called ‘asymmetric effects of globalisation’, he received a positive welcome from the European Council. Member states, the Commission and the European Parliament had the opportunity to show their social face and to express their support to those losing their jobs due to the structural changes of international trade and thus the European market. Aiming at counterbalancing the possible negative effects of globalised trade, open markets and increasing competition, the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund sets up a crisis mechanism for European workers made redundant due to the restructuring of the world market.
The idea in itself is promising and has a dual benefit. Firstly, from a practical viewpoint, it assists directly and in apt terms those citizens caught up in the wave of change. Secondly, from a more political viewpoint, the Fund is also a good communication tool for the European Union as it shows to European citizens that the decision-makers in Brussels do care. At a time when euro-scepticism is becoming broader and when confidence building is necessary before re-opening debates such as further integration, further enlargement and the European Constitution, the EGF can demonstrate solidarity to those challenging the EU. Of course, the amount dedicated in such project -500 million euros- is probably not sufficient to express the support some citizens will be seeking from the EU, nevertheless we should still take into account that between 35,000-50,000 redundant workers could benefit yearly.
However, when discussions on the actual proposal for the creation of a European Globalisation Adjustment Fund started, it became obvious that such a well-intended idea was not perceived likewise from all sides, as MEPs from smaller member states realised that their countries would be left outside the remit of the Fund. While the initial Commission proposal stated that all member states should benefit from the EGF, the specific criteria set, limit gravely the accessibility to such funding. The difficulty arises mainly for small and medium-sized member states as the criteria -i.e. at least 1,000 redundancies in a company or a sector within a 6-moth period- automatically exclude them. Obviously, in countries such as Malta or Greece, the effect of globalisation-related redundancies would not be of such volume precisely because the possibly affected sectors are not as big. But people are equally affected no matter where they live. Why should the size of a country or a sector be a good enough reason for them to be discriminated against?
Why should this Fund cover in practice only bigger member states? Why should we allow fostering instead of combating euro-scepticism by letting citizens think that we are promoting a two-tier Europe?
Our work in the European Parliament always evolves around striking the right balance. This is also our task in the case of the EGF. The eligibility criteria are necessary in order to limit the vastness of applications the Commission would be dealing with on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the criteria should be fair and inclusive, in order not to leave some member states outside its narrowly defined selection procedure. Discrimination has never been promoted in the EU policies. Membership to the EU means equal access to what the Union offers.
The legislative procedure gives us in the European Parliament the possibility of setting the record straight regarding this benevolent proposal. In exceptional and duly justified circumstances, a member state with a small labour market should be allowed to circumvent the existing stringent criteria -which do not apply in its case anyway- and to set off the EGF mechanism. A serious impact on employment should not correlate to counting redundancies, but to its overall effect to the local economy. The amount allocated to these exceptional circumstances should be limited to 20% of the total budget, thus allowing bigger member states, with possibly more redundancies, to get the bigger piece of the cake.
The opportunity to improve the EGF proposal will be given to MEPs during the December Plenary in Strasbourg. Taking into account that the EGF should be up and running from January 2007, good collaboration and wide consensus could solve the discrimination issue against member states with smaller industrial sectors but with equal concerns on globalisation-related job losses. The means to provide accessibility to all exist within the EU mechanism. The question now is whether the willingness also exists.