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EUROPEAN UNION

‘EU needs to deliver as values crisis looms’

Europe is in the midst of a values crisis, argues Sweden's EU Affairs Minister Birgitta Ohlsson, who believes it's time for European Union and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to act as he delivers his 2013 State of the Union speech on Wednesday.

'EU needs to deliver as values crisis looms'

In the shadow of the economic crisis we are witnessing a values crisis in Europe. Europe’s major populist, xenophobic, and nationalist parties have, on average, almost doubled in national elections in recent years.

In many Member States during recent years we have seen attacks on freedom of the press, rule of law, and fundamental democratic principles. Pride parades are being banned in EU capitals, the Roma are often treated as second class citizens, and we still have challenges regarding islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism.

Safeguarding the values of the European Union is more crucial than ever.

A year ago, you presented, as President of the European Commission, your 2012 State of the Union address. You emphasized, very importantly, the need for a Europe with strong support for human rights:

“It is time to learn the lessons from history and write a better future for our Europe. A Europe that stands by its values…A political union also means that we must strengthen the foundations on which our Union is built: the respect for our fundamental values, for the rule of law and democracy.

Last year, you also had the courage to criticize the sad development in some EU Member States.

“In recent months we have seen threats to the legal and democratic fabric in some of our European states. The European Parliament and the Commission were the first to raise the alarm and played the decisive role in seeing these worrying developments brought into check. But these situations also revealed limits of our institutional arrangements.”

And you presented an idea for a solution:

“We need a better developed set of instruments– not just the alternative between the “soft power” of political persuasion and the “nuclear option” of article 7 of the Treaty.

Some of these European values have become victims of the crisis. Just as we need rules to stabilize Member States’ budgets, we need to improve respect for human rights, rule of law, and fundamental values.

As early as in 2003, the Commission tabled a communication on article 7, with an ambition to monitor the respect for human rights and swiftly react to violations.

This issue was discussed twice in the General Affairs Council during the 2013 Irish Presidency, and several Member States have requested the Commission to come up with a new communication on how to improve monitoring of human rights and rule of law.

I look forward to listening to your speech today. It’s time to deliver, President Barroso!’

Birgitta Ohlsson

Minister for EU Affairs, Sweden

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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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