EPSCO – Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

The role of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) is to improve citizens’ living standard and quality of life. This is achieved primarily by means of quality jobs and a high degree of social protection, the protection of health and consumer interests and the safeguarding of equal opportunities for all citizens of the European Union.

The Council is composed of ministers responsible for employment, social policy, consumer protection, health and equal opportunities. They meet approximately four times a year.

The main responsibility for employment and social policy remains in the hands of the Member States. At European level, national policies are supported via the following instruments:

  • European legislation regulates the minimum social standards and fundamental rights specifically in the following areas: equality between women and men, non-discrimination, free movement of workers, health and safety at work, labour law and working conditions.
  • Through its open method of coordination, the Council sets common objectives and priorities, analyses measures adopted at national level and submits recommendations to Member States. An essential part of the open method of coordination is the exchange of information, experience and examples of best practice. The Employment Committee (EMCO) and Social Protection Committee (SPC) serve as platforms for discussions on these issues between the Member States.
  • The European Social Fund is an instrument to finance employment and social protection policy measures at national level.

In its employment policy, the European Union wants to achieve full employment, enhance labour quality and productivity, enhance work attractiveness and ensure that work is attractive for job-seekers, including those who are underprivileged and/or inactive. The EU is also keen to improve adaptation to labour market needs, increase and improve the effectiveness of investments in human capital and adapt the education and vocational training system to new skill needs.

Other important factors are the integration of gender equality into all aspects of employment quality, improvements in the provision and quality of services that help both men and women reconcile work and private life and the creation of more and better jobs in order to encourage the same level of economic independence.

The future direction of the European social policy was outlined by the European Commission in July 2008, when it adopted the Renewed Social Agenda, the goal of which is to modernise the EU’s social policy so that it responds to the needs of the 21st century. The Renewed Social Agenda is a set of legislative and non-legislative initiatives in the social field that are now being discussed by the bodies of the Council.

Employment and Social Affairs

Employment and social policy priorities of the Czech Republic

During its Presidency, the Czech Republic will focus on four basic themes in the field of employment and social policy.

1. Free movement of workers

The free movement of workers is one of the top priorities of the Czech EU Presidency. It is completely in tune with the Czech Presidency’s motto ‘A Europe Without Barriers’. The Czech Republic identifies the full use of workforce potential and greater flexibility of the EU labour market as key instruments in enhancing the EU’s competitiveness. Therefore, the primary objective of the Czech Presidency is to highlight the benefits of the greatest possible liberalisation of the free movement of workers within the EU, as well as the increase in professional and geographical mobility of labour on the labour market, in order to enhance the EU’s competitiveness in the global economy. The Czech Republic has selected labour mobility as the major theme of the informal EPSCO Council meeting to be held in Luhačovice in January 2009. The Presidency will follow this line when drafting the EPSCO Council conclusions on the Commission’s report on the impact of free movement of workers following EU enlargement.

The Presidency will focus on measures to suppress undeclared work, and will foster awareness of the possibilities and advantages of mobility within the EU and the exchange of examples of best practice in the removal of language barriers. At the same time the Presidency will tackle the issue of recognition of previous experience for the purposes of further career growth. The Presidency will emphasise the negative effects of the existing transitional measures concerning the free movement of workers when preparing the spring meeting of the European Council.

2. Increasing employment and the flexibility of the labour market through flexicurity guidelines

Making full use of the EU’s workforce potential and making the EU’s labour market more flexible represent key tools in increasing the EU’s competitiveness. Therefore, the Czech Presidency will promote the implementation of the Guidelines for Growth and Jobs (the European Employment Strategy) and flexicurity guidelines (a balance between a flexible labour market and social security, designed to motivate citizens to be more active). The Presidency will also seek a compromise within the conciliation procedure with the European Parliament concerning the Working Time Directive. When preparing the key messages of the EPSCO Council, the Presidency will point out that even at the time of global financial crisis the EU should not abandon the long-term goals of the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs. In discussions about the Lisbon Strategy after 2010 the Presidency will also tackle the issue of modernising labour law.

In the area of employment, the Presidency will give priority to: increasing labour market flexibility and the flexibility of labour relations and social services based on the principle of ‘making work pay’; strengthening motivation for reintegrating into the labour market; improving the quality of human resources through adult training using the strategies of lifelong learning; motivating employers and workers to invest in education; and supporting the link between education/training aspects and social protection provided to workers during labour market transition. In this respect, the Presidency will place an emphasis on preventing abuse of social protection. To introduce an in-depth discussion about this issue, the Presidency will organise a conference entitled ‘Flexicurity –Lifelong Learning and Social Protection Components’. It is in this context that the Presidency plans to prepare the conclusions of the EPSCO Council concerning the Commission’s communication entitled ‘New Skills for New Jobs’, and the conclusions of the Council on fulfilling the principles of flexicurity with an emphasis on the importance of training during labour market transition.

3. Horizontal support for families in the context of EU policies

The Czech Presidency is committed to enhancing the prestige of parenthood, balancing adequate appreciation of childcare and housework in relation to employment and developing innovative forms for the reconciliation of work, family and personal life. The Czech Republic is keen to underline and appreciate the perception of each individual not just as a member of the workforce, but also as a parent investing time, energy and money in the care and upbringing of children – future human capital. Therefore, in the preparations for future legislative and coordination steps in the field of policies relating to the reconciliation of family and working life, the Czech Republic is working towards ensuring that innovative childcare services are supported on an individual basis and that parental domestic care for young children is viewed as a fully-fledged, socially relevant alternative to an occupational activity. This issue will be the theme of a Presidency conference entitled ‘Parental Childcare and Employment Policy’. The Presidency takes the view that promoting the employment of parents, especially women, through the development of childcare services cannot be seen as the grounds for underestimating the role of parents in early childcare. The key criterion in shaping policies for reconciliation of work and family life will be the best interest of the child. Therefore, during the informal meeting of ministers for family policy, the Presidency will propose to open a discussion on a possible revision of the Barcelona goals in the field of family policy.

4. Social services as a tool for active social inclusion of the most disadvantaged persons and as an employment opportunity

In discussions about social services the Presidency will focus on social services as a tool for preventing social exclusion, a tool for active social inclusion of the most vulnerable persons and, at the same time, as a sphere of growing employment opportunities (given the demographic trends in the EU) and a process of strengthening the network of such services provided in a natural social environment. The Presidency will place an emphasis on the availability of social services in terms of location, money and type. In the area of active social inclusion policy, the Presidency will promote a combination of policies on labour market integration, workforce mobility, motivation to find a job, support of adequate income and high-quality, available and efficient social services. To discuss social inclusion issues, the Presidency will hold a conference entitled ‘Social Services – A Tool for Mobilising the Workforce and Strengthening Social Cohesion’, and will propose to adopt the conclusions of the EPSCO Council. Attention will also be paid to the issue of improving the quality, availability and funding of long-term care, the protection of dignity and rights of persons dependent on care and the support for active, healthy and dignified ageing.


Public health protection and support is an important part of the common EU policy. The significance of health is also emphasised in other EU policies, such as the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs, which stresses the connection between health and economic prosperity.

A no less important part of the common health policy is the creation of a single European market for pharmaceuticals, which would not only support human health protection, but also the development of the pharmaceutical industry, its competitiveness and research.

In the EU Council, health policy falls within the remit of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO), which meets four times a year. Health issues are usually dealt with on the second day of the EPSCO meeting, when health ministers convene.

Despite the fact that it is the member states that bear the main responsibility for the health policy and health care provision, cooperation at EU level is sometimes necessary – particularly in those areas where countries cannot act alone effectively. These concern serious health dangers and problems of cross-border or international impact, such as pandemics and bioterrorism, or issues related to free cross-border movement of goods, services and persons (particularly when trying to guarantee patients a certain extent and level of rights all over the EU).

Public Health

The EU consists of 27 countries with almost half a billion inhabitants, which is why coordinated reactions and activities can be of crucial importance on some health issues.

The European Union takes several steps, for instance in these key areas: nutrition, preventing and fighting obesity, restriction of smoking and its side effects, cooperation in the area of health dangers, epidemiological monitoring of various illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS, TBC or hepatitis B and C, cross-border health care provision or setting strict criteria for dealing with materials of human origin, such as blood, tissues and cells.

To achieve an effective and strategic organisation of the European health policy, the EU Council adopted two strategic documents in 2007:

  • The first is entitled Together for Health: A Strategic Approach for the EU (2008-2013). Its aim is to set priorities and lay down a basic orientation of the EU health policy. A priority of this strategy is the promotion of good health in an ageing Europe, protection of citizens against health dangers and promotion of dynamic health systems and new technologies.
  • The other document is the second programme of Community action in the field of public health (2008–2013). This is the principal financial instrument to implement EU goals in this area.

Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices

The pharmaceuticals and medical devices policy is another important European health policy. It has to do with the EU’s responsibility for the supervision of the compliance with the principles of the free movement of pharmaceuticals and medical devices as goods, while taking into account their immediate effect.

Since 1985, the EU has been trying to create a single European pharmaceuticals market. Its regulation should both protect people’s health and help to create conditions for competition on the pharmaceuticals market and standards for pharmaceutical research. The EU supervises the safety of pharmaceuticals throughout their life circle (this is known as pharmacovigilance).

The European regulation also lays down basic requirements for medical devices, and these requirements must be fulfilled before the medical devices can be marketed. If the requirements are met, the products receive the CE label.

Currently, a simplification of the registration of pharmaceuticals is being discussed. The simplification procedure in progress aims at reducing the administrative burden for the industry and at rationalising the requirements that bind the industry when applying for changes in registrations of human and veterinary medicinal products that have already been granted.

Priorities of the Czech EU Presidency

Together with the French and the Swedish Presidencies, the Czech Republic will concentrate on the financial impact of demographic changes and on the need for innovation, aiming to maintain a high quality of health service provision and to ensure access to these services. It is necessary here to find more effective instruments to ensure the financial sustainability of the health systems.

The most important factor for the increasing expenses on health care is not only the ageing population, but also the progress of and innovations in medicine and the increasing expectations and demands of patients. Health systems must face cuts in public finances, while the expectations of European society are bound by the principle of solidarity.

The Czech Republic will emphasise the financial sustainability of health systems in the long run – health systems in the context of public finances, long-term care and its funding etc. It is, of course, not only spending on health that must be taken into account. Effectiveness, solidarity and access to resources are also important issues.

EU competences should be neither extended nor deepened in this area. The goal of this priority is to promote the sharing of experience and exchange of information and to enhance communication among the member states, which influence each other more and more in this area as a result of the free movement of persons, goods and services, while retaining their sovereignty.

Furthermore, the Czech Republic will concentrate on "electronic Health", i.e. the issue of electronic integration of health services and the interoperability of information systems in the health sector (e-Health).

Effective sharing of information will be made possible by the digitisation and interoperability of health information systems. Digitisation in the health sector will allow electronic data processing (electronic medical records) and the interoperability of these data should make information collected at one health centre more intelligible to the information system of another health centre.

The goal of the priority concerning e-Health is, in general, to contribute to better health among citizens, make health service provision more effective for both Czech and other EU citizens and consequently improve the quality of this care and patient safety.

In connection with the activities of international organisations, the Czech Republic also intends to draw attention to the danger of the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics and the risk that they lose their effectiveness to cure infections. This is a top health priority of the World Health Organisation and the European Union (or, more precisely, of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control). These institutions recommended to the EU member states to implement national programmes to control and prevent antimicrobial resistance, which is caused by excessive use of antibiotics and solved by measures preventing the spread of multi-resistant microbes.

Although the Czech Republic has a long-standing tradition of antibiotic policy, the resistance of some germs has been increasing alarmingly in recent years. Its increase causes higher morbidity and mortality, which leads to higher spending on health care and prolongs hospitalisation periods. Studies investigating excessive use of antibiotics, conducted in the Czech Republic at the beginning of this decade, showed that about 50 % of antibiotics were prescribed wrongly, which means a cost of at least one billion Czech crowns per year.

In general, the Czech Republic regards the recommendations on an effective implementation of national programmes for controlling antibiotic resistance and excessive use of antibiotics as a necessary step for a long-term maintenance of efficient infection treatment.

Drawing on EU-funded health care projects, the Czech Republic will concentrate in particular on the draft standards for hospital antibiotic programmes aiming to reduce the danger of antibiotic resistance and nosocomial infections in order to enhance patients’ safety and health care quality. Another goal is to recommend suitable models of support and funding of national antibiotic programmes by national governments and health care payers, especially health insurance companies.

Consumer Protection

The European Union’s representatives started addressing consumer protection intensively in the early 1970s. In April 1975, the European Commission submitted the EEC’s Preliminary Programme for a consumer protection and information policy. This document went on to become the cornerstone of the European Community’s consumer legislation. It laid down five fundamental consumer rights:

  • the right to health and safety
  • the right to the protection of economic interests
  • the right to compensation
  • the right to information and education
  • the right to representation

The European Commission’s current activities and the operations planned for the near future are contained in the EU Consumer Policy Strategy for 2007-2013. In this document, the European Commission sets two fundamental objectives: to ensure a high level of consumer protection, in particular by means of improved evidence, better consultation and better representation of consumers’ interests, and to ensure efficient application of consumer protection legislation, especially by means of cooperating in the enforcement thereof, disclosing information, and providing education and legal means of recourse. The most important activity is the current review of EU consumer law, which is expected to culminate in the approval of the horizontal Directive on Consumer Rights. The Czech Presidency will also address this matter.

Review of EU consumer law

The review of EU consumer law launched by the European Commission in 2004 is intended to simplify the current legal framework and create a genuine internal market guaranteeing all consumers throughout the EU the same rights and providing the same level of protection, as well as guaranteeing all businesses equal access to all national retail markets in the EU on the principle of equal competition, thus smoothing the way for cross-border commercial relations.

In February 2007 the European Commission published the Green Paper on the Consumer Acquis. The Green Paper started off the public consultations on the existing internal market issues and attracted contributions from more than 300 interested subjects. The opinion prevailed that the only way to progress and to achieve the set targets in the area of revision is to promote the adoption of an effective horizontal legal instrument with general applicability which would be valid for both national and cross-border commercial relations. After analysing the impact of such an instrument, the European Commission published, on 8 October 2008, a draft Consumer Rights Directive based on the principle of full and targeted harmonisation . The proposal, consisting of 50 Articles and 5 Annexes, systematically regulates common elements of four revised directives, based on minimal harmonisation, and removes the contradictions between them. The directives to be substituted by the present proposal are Directive 97/7/EC on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts, Directive 85/577/EEC of 20 December 1985 to protect the consumer in respect of contracts negotiated away from business premises, Directive 93/13/EEC of 5 April 1993 on unfair terms in consumer contracts, and Directive 99/44/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 May 1999 on certain aspects of the sale of consumer goods and associated guarantees.

The proposal brings more exact rules and adjusts the existing rules to the current economic development in the following areas: definitions, general requirements for information for consumers and special requirements for information for consumers according to the type of sales realised, the right to withdraw from the contract, compliance with the contract, commercial guarantees, consumer rights as provided for in the terms of contract (protection against unfair terms).

Consumer protection priorities of the Czech Presidency

The consumer protection objectives pursued by the Czech Presidency are: to increase the confidence of consumers and businesses in the EU internal market; to strengthen their rights; and to remove obstacles to trade on the internal market. The Czech Presidency therefore takes the view that it is crucial to reach a broad consensus in adopting new consumer protection legislation; in particular, maximum progress needs to be made in the debate on the Framework Directive on Consumer Contractual Rights, resulting from the review of the consumer acquis. Debate within the Council has been launched by the French Presidency, and the Czech Presidency will continue these efforts. In the discussions, the diverse interests of businesses and consumers and the different levels of consumer protection regulation in individual Member States will have to be taken into account.

In addition, the Czech Republic will need to respond to the European Commission’s other activities. Specifically, consultations on the collective compensation of consumers are likely to come to an end, and a presentation of the findings after the first year of the Consumer Scoreboard can be expected.