Helsinki (29.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) More than 600 delegates at the opening session of the 9th ETUC Congress warmly greeted the attendance and address of European Commission President (designate) Romano Prodi. Mr Prodi expressed in strong terms his support for continued trade union participation in European social dialogue between the labour market partners, governments and the Commission.

This is needed not only for working life and social issues but also in smoothing the path to EU enlargement. "Your contribution in this context is absolutely crucial", Prodi enthused.

He was cautious, however, over defining the context of cooperation and dialogue. "Europe has the best safety nets in the world in the form of job security legislation, collective agreements and social protection systems. These are valuable achievements."

"But we have offered too many exits from the labour market and not enough springboards to new opportunities. For the future, new skills and new jobs – not benefits – must be the first priority", he emphasised.

Mr Prodi offered no direct positive response to the call by European trade union leaders to strengthen the European Union's social character and role in securing the fundamental rights of workers. Rather he outlined the route to an economically stronger Europe. "The role of the social partners and public policies is to facilitate the development of more productive enterprises, and at the same time to give individuals affected by change new skills, new starts and new opportunities."

Mr Prodi offered the European trade unionists an important role in promoting the competitive position of the European Union.

Heikki Pohja, who heads the Brussels office of the three Finnish central trade unions, called attention to a lack of clarity in Mr Prodi's approach to the social dimension. "I also hoped for greater clarity about how to promote employment and what the European Commission's role in this will be", Pohja noted.

Mr Pohja reminded - when interviewed by Trade Union News from Finland -  of the compromise made by the trade union movement in approving the Internal Market and Economic and Monetary Union. Referring to Jacques Santer's and Romano Prodi's predecessor as Commission President, Jacques Delors, he argued that "the European Internal Market would never have been established without the contribution of the trade union movement".

"This has to be acknowledged in the balance by strengthening the fundamental rights of workers and by creating more jobs", Pohja demanded. "The European Union has yet to make a strong enough commitment to this."

Pohja shares Mr Prodi's worries about the low turnout in the European parliamentary election earlier this month. "This is also a serious challenge for us. What must be done to increase the confidence of the electorate in European Integration, is to give people more rights and security."

ETUC General Secretary Emilio Gabaglio said that greater commitment to the social dimension by the Commission and Council of Ministers depends on their political will. He applauded the Employment Pact agreed this month at the Cologne Summit but expressed his dissatisfaction with the other economic and social decisions made by the same European leaders. "There was nothing new in them. They were just a re-hash of the Stability Agreement", Gabaglio commented critically.

Lauri Ihalainen, President of Finland's largest central trade union organisation SAK, spoke about the need to include the fundamental rights of workers in global trading regulations. "This issue should be given prominence in the preparations for the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting to be held this autumn. Including the fundamental rights of workers in the rules of trade must be incorporated in European Union guidelines", Ihalainen demanded.

"The globalisation of world trade, of capital and its movement and of production will quickly take over where democracy has lost its grip and will lead to a world-wide weakening of the trade union movement", Ihalainen warned.

Mr Ihalainen also outlined the trade union approach to the Balkan crisis. "The European trade union movement is duty-bound to demand that the industrialised countries accept their responsibilities by fully participating in reconstruction work, and it must lend its support to this way of thinking. The formation of a united and active trade union movement which will encourage the development of democracy and the creation of an active social partnership is of major importance to this war-ravaged environment."