A series of national seminars was launched on October 27, on the mid-term review of the European Social Fund (ESF) for 2000-2006. The seminars will look at the progress of the ESF so far and assess challenges for 2004-2006, especially in view of Enlargement. Following these national consultations, a European ministerial conference will be held in Brussels on January 29-30 where current and new Member States will put together priorities for the remaining financial period and its role in creating employment.

The Commission's Third Cohesion Report, due out at the end of 2003 should show the future shape of the ESF and in early 2004, the Commission will publish its initial Financial Framework proposal for the period after 2006. The mid-term evaluation of the ESF is part of the nascent debate of the EU's Budget from 2007 to 2012. "Agenda 2007" as it is known, will see the ESF reorganised as part of the overall Structural Funds programme.

Post 2007, the ESF will be strongly focused on labour market reform, boosting employment and putting more money into improving vocational skills. This is to meet the needs of the ten new Member States and in an attempt to meet the Lisbon targets of making the EU economy the most competitive and dynamic in the world by 2010.

Enlargement is likely to prove a major challenge to the present ESF system, with a significantly higher demand on resources due to the large disparities between many of the regions in the Accession Countries and the Member States. "Community monies must be used efficiently post-enlargement", said Director-General for Employment and Social Affairs, Odile Quintin. "They must be underpinned by sound management and tighter control capacities."

The probable post-enlargement difficulties will be exasperated by the low growth and rising unemployment among the EU's current Member States. "Despite the regional disparities in the new Union, we will need to press on, in all countries, with the implementation of the Lisbon strategy", said Mrs Quintin, adding that this would likely lead to a distinction in priorities for the regions lagging most behind and the rest of...

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