The Commission and the French EU Presidency, which took over the EU reigns on 1 July, have both declared social policy a priority in 2008. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly stressed the need to make Europe "more protective", contrary to the views of more liberal member states such as the UK.
The renewed social package is based on a consultation with European social partners carried out in 2007 and aims to put the social dimension back on the EU's agenda three years after the Lisbon Strategy was refocused on growth and jobs (see our Links Dossier on the Lisbon Strategy's relaunch).
The initiative can also be seen in light of Commission President José Manuel Barroso's hopes of securing a second term, which depends on the approval of both the member states and the European Parliament.
Presenting the Commission's package to MEPs, Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla highlighted two measures out of the overall 18 proposed in July: the draft Discrimination Directive and the revised Directive on the European Works Council.
The former, which aims to ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, religion and disability outside the workplace, would bring member states, businesses and citizens "more clarity and legal certainty," Spidla said.
However, "this does not mean that uniform rules have to be applied everywhere. For example, in insurance or banking it will still be possible to treat people differently based on age and disability," he added.
On the European Works Council Directive, Spidla said the 820 works councils currently in place throughout the Union "have not fully fulfilled their role. Employees are often not properly informed and consulted regarding company restructuring".
"This initiative aims to strengthen social dialogue in companies at the supranational level," he added.
Xavier Bertrand, the French Minister for Employment and Social Affairs and acting EU Council President , said "2008 must be the year for re-launching a social Europe," adding that the next few months "will be the last chance we have to achieve results during this term of office".
"Economic progress does not mean we have to give up social progress. On the contrary […], the two are closely linked. Without social progress, the benefits of economic progress will be exhaustive sooner or later". "We don't need less, but more social Europe."
The French chair of the EPP-ED Group, Joseph Daul , voiced strong support for the Commission's initiative but also asked it to go "even further" into areas such as the fight against poverty, better integration of disabled people into the labour market and the promotion of workers' mobility and training.
"No political family is more committed to the defence of a Social Europe than the centre-right, represented by the EPP-ED Group", Daul pointed out.
In a statement that appears to be a precursor to the next European election campaign, Daul was also eager to distinguish his party from the political opponents. "Too often, the Socialists and the parties of the left think that they have found the magic formula for more social justice. And, too often, they forget that in order to obtain that, to guarantee the durability of our social models, we need to provide the means."
Socialist Chair and German MEP Martin Schulz used his speech as a general offensive against the political right, which he said dominates Europe and does not pay enough attention to the social dimension. Addressing the conservatives, he said "for those people, going to horse races is more important than social Europe".
He dismissed Minister Bertrand's suggestion of making 2008 the year of Social Europe by saying: "It sounds good, but reality is different. More than bitter. The reality is of enormous social inequality in Europe."
Schulz also warned that "people today are afraid of Europe that will not guarantee them social protection".
Graham Watson, the British chair of the liberal ALDE group , described the social package as "a welcome step forward in the construction of a European community which cares for its citizens".
However, commenting on the anti-discrimination directive, he said he still sees "too many loopholes" which need to be abolished.
The British leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, Philip Bushill-Matthews , dismissed the Commission's package by saying "the EU cannot solve all the ills of society with more one-size-fits-all legislation as determined by big business and big trade unions".
Jean Lamberts, Green MEP from the UK, welcomed the minister's words, expressing her hope that his EU counterparts would echo and translate them into action. However, "the evidence thus far does not give us great confidence of that".
"Many of us still see a lot of questions on how we are protecting the social in the face of market dominance," she said, adding that "we are asked all the time to justify measures on the basis they do not disturb markets rather on the basis they deliver high quality of services and workers' rights".
"The package in no way fulfils citizens' expectations", said German GUE/NGL group member Gabriele Zimmer . "The package won't bridge the social divide," she stressed, adding that her group rejected the package "in its vagueness and misguided development".