17 April 2012
Dialogue in Difficult Times. Labour Markets, Education, Social Partnership

Third bilateral Belgian-German conference

Reforming Labour Markets in Times of Crisis: Former German Chancellor Schröder and Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Reynders Open Top-Level German-Belgian Dialogue.
Former Chancellor Schröder and Deputy Prime Minister Reynders opened the Conference Belgium-Germany 2012 in Brussels
On 17 April Belgium’s Egmont Institute and the Brussels Office of the Bertelsmann Stiftung convened the third bilateral Belgian-German conference. This year the distinguished participants met in the Palais d’Egmont. The event, which was entitled “Dialogue in Difficult Times. Labour Markets, Education, Social Partnership,” was opened by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders.
 About 200 participants listened as MM. Schröder and Reynders outlined their priorities with regard to labour market and welfare state reforms, which were designed to maintain the international competitiveness of both Germany and Belgium against the backdrop of the euro crisis, greater global competition for industrial locations, and an ageing working population.

Former German Chancellor Schröder emphasized that the policy of “require and support” (“Fordern und Fördern”) which was implemented in 2003 in the

“Agenda 2010” during his period as head of the federal government had made a crucial contribution to the fact that at present the German economy, despite the crisis, is in such good shape. He also acknowledged that excesses were committed in the implementation of the reforms and that these abuses should be addressed. 
However, it is time to move on to the “Agenda 2030” project in order to secure growth and employment in Germany in the long term. Above all it requires to make it easier to combine work and family life so that more women could go out to work; to develop an educational system that leaves no one behind and in particular totally integrates children from immigrant families; and to adopt a modern kind of immigration policy that will attract highly qualified workers to come to Germany.
This said, such a programme of reform designed to enable Germany to meet the challenges of the future had to address the weaknesses of some specific aspects of the greater flexibility policy initiated by the “Agenda 2010”. He mentioned a.o. the upsurge in the low-wage sector from the middle of the 1990s onwards. In order to deal with this problem the Chancellor advocated the introduction of minimum wages adapted to the different industrial sectors. He deplored also the fact that temporary workers were being abused as cheap labour force. Regarding that issue, he underlined that the law had to ensure that temporary workers receive equal pay for equal work!
Over and above these national modernization requirements, he advocated a greater EU integration of financial, economic and social policies within the EU. It had also to shift from being a mere policy of spending cuts to becoming a European policy of growth, so as to ensure the necessary cohesion between weak and strong economies of the Union.
The participants in the ensuing debate on flexicurity-based labour market reforms included Monika De Coninck, the Belgian Minister of Labour, Beate Bröcker, State Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Services in Saxony-Anhalt, Guy Quaden, the former governor of the National Bank of Belgium, Kristin Schreiber, Deputy Head of Cabinet of EU Commissioner Michel Barnier, Pierre Alain De Smedt, President of the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB-VBO), Anne Demelenne, the General Secretary of the Belgian Trade Union Confederation (ABVV/FGTB), Peter Clever, a member of the management board of the Confederation of German Employers (BDA), and Mario Ohoven, President of the German Association of Medium-Sized Companies (BVMV) and the European Associations of Small and Medium-sized Companies (EV-KMU).
In the afternoon, two groups of experts met to examine how globalization poses a challenge for the educational and vocational training systems, and how the financial and economic crisis is likely to affect the social partnership in the two countries. It was apparent during the session on education and training that there is not enough in-company training in Belgium and Germany and that the training of qualified skilled workers has to be adapted to societal and industrial changes in Belgium. The debate on the future of the social dialogue showed that the Belgian participants were very keen to better understand the German employee participation model.
In the joint concluding remarks with Eckart Cuntz, the German ambassador, Aart De Geus (Bertelsmann Stiftung) emphasized that “the bilateral exchange of views which we wish to encourage within the framework of the Belgian-German Conference is very important due to the plethora of economic and social concepts in Europe. In times of crisis it is clear we need to learn from one another and we need such learning processes if we want to develop common strategies for more competitiveness, employment, sustainable growth and social cohesion. It is particularly helpful if all those involved accept to be self-critical – in the spirit of a genuine dialogue as we experienced today.” De Geus concluded by pointing out that the subject and the timing of the conference could hardly have been better.
Indeed, the following day the European Commission presented its new employment package which supports flexicurity as a key approach to overcome the current economic and employment crisis in Europe.