In view of the worsening social situation and under pressure from street protests, the heads of state and government are working to discretely loosen the austerity grip on EU countries. The issue was also discussed at the Tripartite Social Summit held just before the European Council, on 14 March. It remains a controversial issue, with social partners divided over strategies to emerge from the crisis.

Employer and worker representatives called on the EU to tackle the school drop-out problem, skills mismatches, youth unemployment and poverty. Meanwhile, they committed to presenting, within the next few months, their action plan on youth employment (announced for mid-May) as scheduled in the work programme 2012-2014. They also welcomed the proposal made by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy to introduce a social and employment scoreboard as part of the European semester. This provision should in fact feature in the report on the reinforcement of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), which was presented in the evening to heads of state and government.

But similarities of point of view stopped there. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) spoke out against the policies, which have been so far - unsuccessfully, it says - wielded by the EU in a bid to emerge from the crisis. "The policies implemented until now have failed. Of course we agree that growth is necessary. But the problem is how to put in place what we need. [...] We are convinced that it is essential to foster investment and that we should postpone the absolute need to reduce public deficit," said ETUC Secretary-General Bernadette Segol before going out to march alongside several thousand demonstrators to "put an end to austerity and fight youth unemployment".

Meanwhile, employers called for realistic solutions that take into account economic difficulties, they said.

"Rather than simply fighting for the preservation of existing rights or the creation of new ones, they must take into account in a fair and balanced way what can realistically be expected from an economy in terms of prosperity and solidarity," said Markus J. Beyrer, director-general of BusinessEurope. "On the proposed solidarity mechanisms', we...

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