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Gender equality and environment laws on business lobby hit list

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, in charge of "better regulation". [European Parliament/Flickr]

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, in charge of “better regulation”. [European Parliament/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE: EU legislation to ensure gender equality on company boards, to extend maternity leave, and to reduce air pollution and landfill should be killed off, a leading business lobby organisation has told the European Commission.

A BusinessEurope communication to Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, seen by EurActiv, contains a hit list of five pending bills, including the EU’s Circular Economy package, that it wants ditched by the executive.

The proposals are “damaging to the competitiveness of European companies”, and “should be withdrawn”, the paper, which is not public and dated 20 November, said. Trade unions and environmental campaigners have strongly criticised BusinessEurope’s recommendations.

Timmermans has a mandate from new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”.  He is currently analysing about 130 pieces of pending legislation left over from the Barroso Commission to decide if any should be dropped.

The targeted proposals are;

  • Gender balance on boards;
  • Revisions to the Safety and Health of Pregnant Workers Directive;
  • The reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants;
  • The Circular Economy package of six legislative proposals;
  • The Financial Transaction Tax.

The paper also calls for nine other proposals to be “substantially improved”, including rules on mining in war-torn regions, and the EU Emissions Trading System, the cornerstone of the EU’s drive to reduce greenhouse gases.

EurActiv has asked BusinessEurope for a comment, but due to an event in Rome, during which members met Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, they were unable to give a response before publication. The story will be updated, if a response is received.

Gender Balance

In 2012, the European Commission set a 40% target for the number of women in non-executive board member positions in publicly listed companies, excluding small and medium sized enterprises.

85% of non-executive board members and 91.1% of executive board members are men, the Commission said. There was a glass ceiling that barred female talent form top positions in Europe’s biggest companies, it added.

The bill is being discussed by the Council of Ministers, after getting strong backing from the European Parliament. In October, the Swedish government said it was considering imposing the quota at national level.

Bernadette Ségol, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) said, “It is outrageous that BusinessEurope says requiring companies to have more women on their boards would damage competitiveness. I think it would improve competitiveness. I feel insulted and I think many other women will be too. They should publicly withdraw that claim right now.”

BusinessEurope said that full harmonisation of quotas would not take into account the different conditions in different sectors. Instead of a fully harmonised quota system, the Commission should make a recommendation and leave it to member states to decide how best to promote better gender balance.

“We therefore believe it would be better to withdraw this particular proposal,” it said.

Pregnant workers

In 2008, the Commission proposed revisions to an existing directive which would increase maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks. The European Parliament called for an extension of fully paid maternity leave to 20 weeks, which the Council of Ministers did not accept. It has been blocked since 2009.

The Commission signalled in a 2015 draft work programme that it is willing to support efforts to unblock the Safety and Health of Pregnant Workers’ Directive.

The BusinessEurope paper said, “Pregnant workers are already adequately protected […] given the economic situation, it is not reasonable to come up  at European level with rules which would significantly increase costs for companies and public finances.”

ETUC’s Ségol responded, “To add injury to insult they also demand the withdrawal of a proposal to increase maternity leave. The ETUC strongly supports an increase in paid maternity leave which would help millions of women with  a job and a young baby. I know how tough that can be.”

Circular Economy

BusinessEurope is pushing for the EU’s July 2014 Circular Economy package of waste targets to be withdrawn and re-tabled “as an economic piece of legislation rather than from a purely environmental perspective”.

It should also take into account “issues of wider economic interest”, such as manufacturing, raw materials, security of supply and research and innovation, according to the document.

A 30% resource efficiency target, “should not be proposed or considered” as part of the package, it said. BusinessEurope has opposed targets in other environmental legislation.

The Circular Economy package is aimed to increase recycling levels and tighten rules on incineration and landfill. It consists of six bills on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment.

The Commission has said that the package will create €600 billion net savings, two million jobs and deliver 1% GDP growth.

Jeremy Wates, the European Environmental Bureau’s (EEB) secretary-general, said: “BusinessEurope represents yesterday’s polluting businesses. They are pushing an outdated agenda which fails to recognise that the long-term health of the economy requires strong environmental policies.”

Air pollution

The 2013 proposal for the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants revises targets set in 1999, toughening then and increasing its scope to cover some new pollutants.

It fixes emissions ceilings at national level, for nitrogen dioxide for example, obliging member states to hit air quality targets. Supporters say it is the only way to reduce cross-border pollution in the EU.

Sectors such as vehicle and fuel legislation, shipping regulations and UN agreements are covered by the draft law.

“As experience in the past has shown already, the risk is high that the industrial sectors will be held accountable if non-industrial sectors (eg agriculture) do not deliver their share,” BusinessEurope said.

The EEB’s Wates said,  “It is now clear where the pressure on the Commission to withdraw key legislative proposals on air and waste has been coming from. The real scandal however would be if President Juncker were to buy into BusinessEurope’s regressive agenda under the veil of ‘better regulation’.”

FTT

The list demands that proposals for a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) be dropped. The levy failed to get the unanimous support EU tax law needs to pass in the Council of Ministers.

A smaller bloc of member states is pushing ahead with a version of the tax under the enhanced co-operation procedure, a mechanism allowing them to agree their own FTT without unanimity. As this involves a new proposal, it is unlikely to be affected.

But a Commission decision to drop a once-cherished initiative could send a political signal to the bloc, which needs the executive to draw up the enhanced cooperation bill.

“The introduction of an FTT will undermine the overall aim of financial stability and damp (even more) investment and confidence,” the document said.

ETUC’s Ségol  disagreed. “There are 25 million unemployed because of a crisis caused by out of control financial markets. BusinessEurope cannot be serious claiming that a FTT would undermine financial stability. Instead, an FTT would curb excessive and dangerous speculative trading,” she said.

Proposals to be ‘improved’

Rules on mining in war-torn regions put too much responsibility on companies, should not be made binding, or extended to cover more minerals, the paper said.

The list calls for a full reform of the EU Emissions Trading System, the cornerstone of the EU’s drive to reduce greenhouse gases.

ETS “should become the only EU instrument for delivering on emissions reduction, renewables growth and energy efficiency from industry”.

The call is consistent with BusinessEurope’s demands that targets for renewables and efficiency in the EU’s 2030 climate package be replaced with a single overarching goal for greenhouse gas emissions.

EU leaders committed by 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40%, and increase energy efficiency and renewables by at least 27%. While the gas emissions are legally binding at the national level, the other two are not.

The Commission should, within six months,  deliver a new “carbon leakage” proposal to protect businesses from competition from industries in other countries that are not bound by the EU’s emission restrictions, the document said.

Laws for product safety,  data protection, shareholders’ rights, measures to bolster the resilience of EU credit institutions, trade defence instrument modernisation, and workplace pensions are also mentioned.

The document also calls for four proposals to be adopted quickly by the new Commission. The 4th railway package, Single European Sky, a proposal to protect trade secrets and the modernisation of the EU’s trademark package should all be fast-tracked, it said.

The European Commission told EurActiv that there was no decision on withdrawals or reviews at this stage (see positions).

See story on EurActiv here.

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