With France now in the driver's seat, EU officials on Wednesday unveiled new bloc-wide social policies aimed at putting an end to discrimination in all areas. It will be up to the 27 member states to implement them.
The EU wants to expand equal opportunity to more areas of life
The European Commission on Wednesday, July 2, presented a comprehensive social package that ranges from anti-discrimination laws to health care abroad to labor rights.
After Ireland's clear No to the European Union's reform treaty last month, Brussels is looking for ways to win back the support of the people.
"It's important to us to understand the message of the Irish voters," said Francois Fillon, the prime minister of France, which began its six-month EU presidency on July 1. "They're telling us: fewer discussions about institutions, more concrete solutions for the problems in Europe."
Equal rights for everyone
With their No vote, the Irish called for a Europe that is closer to the people
Ensuring equal rights regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion and handicaps is the main thrust of the package.
Wheelchair users and blind tenants, for example, should be given access to all shops and services. And employers and landlords should be legally bound not to discriminate when selecting employees or tenants.
The new measures, which have yet to be put into effect by the individual member states, go well beyond the bloc's existing handful of anti-discrimination laws, passed several years ago.
Resistance from Berlin
Nearly everything that the European Commission proposed on Wednesday has already been made law in Germany by the current governing coalition, and the country has been praised in Brussels for being at the fore in anti-discrimination legislation.
Nevertheless, conservative voices in Berlin are concerned that the social package will simply mean more expensive bureaucracy from Brussels. It cost Germany 1.73 billion euros ($2.73 billion) to implement its current set of anti-discrimination laws.
Spidla said Europe's social plan has to be flexible
Vladimir Spidla, the EU social affairs commissioner, who is presenting the plan, defended it by saying that "our European social model is still valid, but we always have to adjust it to meet the new challenges and expectations of our citizens.
"Millions of people in the EU continue to face discrimination in their everyday lives," he said in a statement.
France has other presidential priorities
In addition to anti-discrimination laws, the package also aims to break down inter-European borders for health care by ensuring that health insurers pay for services in other European countries.
The patient's health care service would foot the bill for non-hospital treatment abroad, but only up to the amount the treatment would cost in the home state. Some limitations apply, for example on major surgeries, to prevent health care tourism -- which is a concern in some member countries like Britain.
The EU also proposed strengthening the role of pan-European works councils in major international companies. The bid has been harshly criticized by employers' groups concerned that it would hinder corporate decision-making.
French President Nikolas Sarkozy has already made it clear, however, that social policy won't be a top priority during his country's EU presidency. Issues like the reform treaty, immigration, defense, climate change, and energy supply will take center stage.