2004 has started with a bang in the field of social policy. In the run-up to the Spring Summit in March, which is dedicated to the Lisbon agenda, the Commission has a raft of Communications up its sleeve for the coming weeks. One of the first to come out is on the complex matter of 'making work pay'. In line with the theme of combining flexibility with security, as highlighted in November's Kok report, this Communication asks how Member States can make it profitable to work in a low-salary job, when the benefits system is so comfortable. The incoming Irish Presidency took up the call by making the issue the main theme of the informal meeting of Employment and Social Affairs Ministers on January 15-16. However, while nobody can deny that issuing recommendations and exchanging best practice is helpful, this is yet another topic which falls into the Open Method of Co-ordination category, where the EU cannot legislate. Making work profitable involves such a wide range of issues, from benefits and social security, to tax systems, climate for investment and administration, that the co-ordination required is mammoth. Furthermore, these vary so widely from one Member State to another that even the best recommendations cannot apply to more than a handful of countries.

Meanwhile, a consultation on the Working Time Directive has been launched, which could seen the end of the opt-out clause, so widely used in the UK to allow employees to work more than the stated 48-hour week. Whether or not the use of this clause helps the UK to maintain such high productivity and low unemployment is open to debate, but...

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