ECONOMY

Commission launches ambitious scheme to get Europeans moving

BRUSSELS – The European Commission launched a far-reaching scheme yesterday to help workers shift between jobs and countries, hoping to mirror US labor mobility and add zip to Europe’s economy. «Europe is…thankfully different to the United States, but in terms of mobility we still have a lot to do if we are to guarantee our future,» Commission President Romano Prodi told a news conference. The European Union executive urged creation by 2005 of a «health insurance card» valid across the 15-nation EU, easier transfers of pension and other social security benefits and a drive to encourage pupils to learn at least two foreign languages. «This is red tape from the age of the dinosaurs,» said Anna Diamantopoulou, European commissioner for employment and social affairs, waving a stack of forms workers have to fill in to change countries within the EU. The 25-point proposal, aimed at helping workers switch between jobs in the same country and migrate within the EU, would be put to a summit of EU leaders in Barcelona, Spain, in March. If adopted, legal texts could be worked out within about a year and be in place by 2005. «The lack of mobility is putting a brake on the adaptability of our economy,» said Prodi, a former Italian prime minister. Despite growing links between EU countries, including the launch of euro notes and coins in 12 countries from January 1, only 0.1 percent of EU citizens, or 225,000 people, changed residence across the EU’s internal borders in 1999. Stagnant work force? Prodi said that just 1.2 percent moved to a different region – the EU is divided into about 200 regions – against 5.9 percent of US citizens who changed county. «In some countries we have an excessively high unemployment rate and in others we have a shortage of qualified labor,» he said. A computer repair expert can be receiving unemployment benefits in Dublin, for instance, when Athens has jobs to spare. In December 2001, EU unemployment ranged from 12.9 percent of the work force in Spain to 2.5 percent in Luxembourg. Prodi trumpeted the proposed new health card, replacing a five-page «E111» document that workers have to fill in every time they shift country within the EU to maintain health benefits, as «a new coup for Europe» after the euro. «Just as we can use our mobile phone in one country, we should have the ability to move our health and social security from country to country,» Diamantopoulou said. She denied suggestions that a credit-card-sized health card – which would not have a photograph of the bearer – could herald a common EU identity card. The Commission showed off an artists’ impression of a card, in the blue of the EU flag studded with stars. The Commission showed off an artists’ impression of a card, in the blue of the EU flag studded with stars.