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EUROPEAN UNION

The subtle pleasures of Europe Day: Margot Wallström

"If you tried to market the EU as an aphrodisiac, it would rate up there with a nice pair of socks," writes Sweden's EU Commissioner Margot Wallström. But, she adds, May 9th is Europe Day and there's much to celebrate.

The subtle pleasures of Europe Day: Margot Wallström

The 9th of May is Europe Day, and let us be honest, there are, in most people’s minds, more important events to be recalled today. It is, for example, Billy Joel’s birthday, according to one calendar. Also, no less a source than the History Channel tells us that on 9 May 1998 “Sex change singer Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest for Israel with the song ‘Diva’..”

Wikipedia does however note that on 9th May 1950 a French Minister announced to the press a plan for managing coal and steel production between Germany and France. To those people with a passion for mineral and industrial management (you know who you are) this was very significant, but for the rest of us… well, coal and steel isn’t top of our interest list. I mean, who cares?

The man was named Robert Schuman, and he had looked at Europe, devastated by war, and decided that there had to be a better way. But how? They could try to ban weapons, but that rarely works. The winners don’t want to give them up, and the losers tend to get bitter about not having any. So instead, Schuman thought that if the leaders of Europe could not control who had weapons, they could control what makes weapons. Steel. And what do you need to make steel? Coal. Pooling production would make any war between France and Germany impossible according to Schuman.

It was a visionary plan, and it began the process that created today’s European Union. And do you know what? It seems to have worked. The EU now has 27 Member States. Two generations of Europeans have grown up without knowing what it is like to have a war in their country. (And this on a Continent which played host to two world wars and innumerable others over the centuries). I look around Europe today and ask myself ‘what happened to all those authoritarian governments that there used to be?’ Where are the dictators, communists and colonels? They have gone, hopefully for good.

So what? Many people say. They see a blue flag with 12 stars. Does it evoke passion? In a small minority, perhaps. Some see it as a symbol of good, a tiny minority detest it, but to most, it is a symbol that is just not relevant to them. The EU is a bit like the insulation in your house – it’s useful and good to know it’s there but the average person does not go around thinking or worrying about it all the time. And yet, maybe that is its greatest success.

The EU doesn’t really do passion. If anything, the EU flag stands for boring reason over passion, for doing boring things like setting acceptable chemical levels in herring or discussing cross border iPod warranty issues.

And yet the EU does stuff that is highly relevant to us. Like reducing the cost of using mobile phones abroad. Like enabling students to spend a year studying in another country. Like creating millions of jobs via the single market. Like paving the way for cheaper air fares by opening up Europe’s skies to competition. Like making sure our beaches are clean.

Europe Day is so distant that Hallmark doesn’t even do a Europe Day card, and let’s be honest, they do cards for everything from birthdays to when your cat gets a chesty cough.

So, this is my Happy Europe Day card. No need to wave a flag. But when you think about the positive and useful everyday work that European countries now do together, maybe it’s a nice idea to remember the day in 1950 when one man, looking out over a continent that had been the world’s greatest battlefield only five years previously, suggested that he might have a way of making sure it never happened again.

Margot Wallström

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BUSINESS

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU’s minimum wage plan?

EU labour ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the European Commission's planned minimum wage directive. Why is the proposal causing such unease in Sweden?

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU's minimum wage plan?
Customers visit a branch of McDonalds in Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What’s happening on Monday? 

EU ministers responsible for employment and social affairs, including Sweden’s Eva Nordmark, will meet in Brussels for a two day meeting at which they hope to adopt a European Council position on a directive imposing “adequate minimum wages” on all EU countries. Once the Council, which represents member states, has agreed a common position, it will begin negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

What’s Sweden’s position on the minimum wage directive? 

Sweden has been, along with Denmark, one of the most vocal opponents of the directive, arguing that it threatens the country’s collective bargaining model, in which unions and employers set wages without government interference. 

But on Friday, the government dropped its opposition, together with country’s umbrella union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, arguing that a compromise proposal put forward by the European Commission would protect Sweden’s wage autonomy. 

A majority of the members of the Swedish parliament’s employment committee are backing the government’s new stance, but three opposition parties, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats, are opposed to the change in position. 

“I am extremely happy that there is broad support and majority backing for us to continue with the negotiations, to stand up for what we have come to so far, and do everything we can to protect the Swedish wage-setting model,” Sweden’s employment minister Eva Nordmark (S) said after a meeting with the employment committee on Friday. 

READ ALSO: Why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage and how to ensure you’re fairly paid

Why did Sweden make its dramatic last-minute u-turn? 

Sweden’s government judges that, after the compromise, the directive will no longer mean that Sweden is forced to bring in a statutory minimum wage. 

“I consider, together with experts in the civil service and experts in the unions and employer organisations, that there is no requirement for Sweden to bring in a statutory minimum wage,” Nordmark told TT. 

She added that agreeing to sign up to the directive would give Sweden the ability to take a deeper part in the negotiations giving it the power to make sure that important exceptions are made for Sweden. 

Denmark, however, is still resolved to say ‘no’ to the directive. 

Surely a minimum wage is a good thing? Isn’t Sweden supposed to be a high-wage economy? 

Sweden is certainly a high-wage economy, but that is largely thanks to its model of collective bargaining, under which wages are generally set by negotiations between employees and employers for each sector. 

If the directive sets a precedent allowing governments, either at a national or EU level, to interfere in this process, or for those who disagree with the result of the collective bargaining agreement to appeal to government entities, it could undermine the Swedish system. 

Who is still worried? 

More or less everyone. While the Swedish Trade Union Confederation is supporting the government’s decision, its vice chair Therese Guovelin, described the European Commission’s compromise proposal as simply “the least bad compromise proposal” the union had seen.

She has previously described the European Parliament’s position that the directive should apply to the entire European Union as “a catastrophe”.

“That would mean that a disgruntled employee who is not part of the union, could take their case to court, and would then end up at the EU Court, and it would then be them who would decide on what should be a reasonable salary,” she explained. “In Sweden, it’s the parties [unions and employers’ organisations] that decide on that.”

Tobias Billström, group leader for the Moderate Party, said he was concerned at the role of the European Court in the directive. 

“There are big risks with this,” he told TT. “The EU court might decide to interpret this directive as applying across the board, and then we might end up with what we wanted to avoid. The Moderates have as a result been against this development, and it’s important that Sweden gets to decide itself on the Swedish labour market.”

What might happen now? 

The European Parliament might try to remove the wording and the exemptions which Sweden hopes will allow its employers and unions to retain control of wage-setting. 

Mattias Dahl, chief executive of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents employers’ groups, said that the government needed to stand its ground in the upcoming negotiations, reiterating that he would have preferred that the European Commission had not sought to give itself such a role in the Labour Market.  

Nordmark said that Sweden did not intend to back down to the parliament. 

“These are important red lines for us. If there are demands from the European Parliament that push in a different direction, we can lean on the Swedish opinion and what we stand for,” she said. 

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