8-11 April 2013

Guy Ryder's opening remarks to the 9th European Regional Meeting

Statement delivered to Government, worker and employer representatives from 51 European and Central Asian member States gathered in Oslo to discuss the way forward for the region in the context of the continuing financial, economic and social crisis.

Statement | Oslo | 08 April 2013
ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder
© Kilian Munch / ILO
Mrs Huitfeldt, Chair of our Conference,
Delegates from the 51 countries of this region,

Let me first welcome you all, as others have done, whether you be representatives of Governments, Employers, or Workers, observers or guests, to Oslo and to this Ninth European Regional Meeting.

In doing so, and on behalf of us all, I want to thank the Government of Prime Minister Stoltenberg who honoured us by his participation this morning, and the Norwegian social partners for the very warm welcome and for the excellent arrangements that have been made for our work.

These are some of the good reasons for us holding our meeting here – but there are many others. The ILO’s partnership with Norway is longstanding – Norway was a founding Member of the Organisation; it brought the first women delegates to the ILO – and it is strong. It is deeply rooted in shared values and objectives combined with shared commitment to put them into concrete practice.

Norway is one member State that has developed a national Decent Work Agenda for itself and stands as one of the ILO’s strongest partners in development cooperation to promote decent work in other countries. The partnership was strengthened further by the agreement I signed with the Government yesterday and I want to express my appreciation for that.

Dear Friends,

It is therefore from this country of low unemployment, solid economic growth, strong social partnership, a developed welfare state, respectful of fundamental rights, a leader in sustainability, open and successful in the global economy, that we are called upon to take a long hard look at the state of the European world of work and no less importantly to come to agreement on what, together, we should do about it.

And what we see from Oslo should not leave us in any doubt that this meeting should not – cannot – be just a routine event. Because, for all the variations of national circumstance, Europe is in crisis. The crisis is deep. Its epicentre is the world of work. And it shows few signs of going away.

This is why participation at our meeting is so exceptional. My count is of 38 Ministers and Vice-Ministers as well as leaders of social partners. The delegates here are all crucially important actors. Together you make up a unique pan-European tripartite constituency with a tremendous opportunity here in Oslo, and therefore you bear heavy responsibilities. But I want to suggest to you that our real audience is a much bigger one that is made up of:

  • the over 40 million in Europe and Central Asia who do not have a job today;
  • the more than 27 million Europeans living in poverty;
  • the Europeans who are seeing their standards of living, and their access to basic services cut;
  • the millions who, for one reason or another face the prospect of tomorrow with a sense of foreboding that things will get tougher in ways they cannot predict and over which they have little or no influence.

This does not mean everybody in Europe, but they are too many. We cannot speak to them and we cannot speak for them, but we have a responsibility to put them at the centre of our work here this week.

And as we do so, let’s keep in mind that the crisis these people embody is leading to a real questioning not only of the institutions and actors of public life – including those that make up the ILO – but also of that shared endeavour that we have the habit of labelling the European model or the European project. Associated particularly with the European Union, it is nevertheless a model which today speaks to the aspirations of citizens throughout Europe. The level of participation in the decent work conference in Moscow hosted by the government of Russia in December confirmed me in that view. It is the commitment, sustained over at least two generations, unparalleled anywhere else in the world to live in practice the ILO’s founding principle that lasting peace can be built only on social justice.

If we still adhere to that principle – and in the midst of the growing challenges to it, it is more than ever critical that we do – then we must be coherent in accepting that we have all some work to do, not just to demonstrate to the peoples of Europe our shared commitment to that project of social justice, but also to show that it can work for them. There are other options on offer. And if we are not up to the task of making sure that ours is the option that prevails, others may do so rather better than we do.

Dear Friends,

It is to help us to succeed here in Oslo that we have decided to put the key issues of jobs, growth, and social justice squarely before you and to draw out in the background report prepared for our meeting some of the difficult debates that underpin them.

This is not the moment to go into their detail. We all know the size and gravity of the challenge. But we have to get Europe back to work and there are two points that I do feel the need to make about their content.

The first is that any serious attempt to address the core ILO objectives in Europe today – jobs, wages, social protection, the sustainability of enterprises, rights and industrial relations, has to address the wider policy context, including its financial dimension.

We all understand that the social and labour crisis in Europe today is the result of financial breakdown and that the behaviour of labour markets is intimately connected with that of financial markets and financial policies. The ILO has a long-standing mandate to examine the consequences of financial policies on labour issues. And to try to address those issues in isolation would not only be futile but about as good a guarantee of ILO irrelevance as one could get. There is no question of the ILO going beyond its mandate. We need to fulfil our mandate in the right conditions.

Secondly, we are all aware that the challenges before us are not only complex, but controversial too. They take us into areas which arouse rather strong political passions. That is understandable, but we cannot side-step issues just because they are difficult. But equally, addressing them successfully is going to require something more and, I dare to say, better than has sometimes been brought to the debate.

If one were to characterize the crux of the controversy in Europe – and it is a caricature I know – it is the political stand-off between the need for austerity, fiscal consolidation, structural reform and competitiveness on the one hand, and for stimulus, expansion, jobs and growth on the other. I’m afraid that the debate has too frequently taken the form of two competing truths – absolute and admitting no compromise or even constructive confrontation of arguments.

Protagonists have dug themselves as deeply into these trenches as they did in the World War that triggered the creation of the ILO. Unsurprisingly, the process has been equally sterile with little ground won on any side – while the casualties continue to rise to intolerable levels.

We heard the President of Lithuania and the Prime Minister of Norway say very clearly this morning that it was not a choice of austerity or jobs. We need to pursue tripartite policy goals together. It is in this context that I want to call on this Meeting to make its best efforts – and you have the chance. The ILO has worked best when the commitment to dialogue and compromise has guided its work. So has Europe.

It is deeply worrying, I hope you will agree, that in many parts of Europe the climate for social dialogue has become so inhospitable. In some countries dialogue has not been able to resist the stress-test of the crisis. There has even been the perception that the option of dialogue has been confiscated by the removal of decision-making to other places beyond the reach of the social actors. Or even that tripartism is an unintended conspiracy against good decision-making.

We should all take heed of the damaging and corrosive consequences of such developments and I hope that the ILO can work with other concerned organizations to prevent and repair such consequences.

Friends, in saying all this I want to underline the positive examples which demonstrate the reality that there is nothing inevitable in the weakening or demise of dialogue in these times of crisis. Many of your countries with well-established traditions and institutions of social dialogue have demonstrated their remarkable resilience in difficult circumstances and their capacity to navigate the financial storms successfully. Others have made conscious and courageous decisions to make dialogue the preferred option in the taking of tough decisions. These deserve our recognition. And they can serve too as examples for our thinking both during and after the meeting.

Dear Friends,

It has been said that what is simple is wrong, and what is right is too complicated to matter.

The ILO, over the last six months, has embarked on a process of change and reform which is, in some measure, motivated by recognition that simple answers, even when grounded firmly in shared values, are unlikely to take us far in the complex realities of the labour markets of today’s globalized economy. At the ILO, we are intent on raising our analytical capacities, and the quality, relevance and usefulness of our work.

We have been encouraged in our efforts by the positive evaluation of them by our Governing Body last month but we know the job is only just beginning. And in this regard our Regional Meeting comes at a particularly good and helpful moment.

We are just about to begin to review our structures and operations in the regions – including in Europe. I have already had the chance to tell many of you that the current situation in Europe in any case requires that the ILO reconsider its role in the region. The way we operate now carries all of the marks of a long history in which Europe has played a critically important role, one of inspiration and of leadership. It has evolved, of course, over time, with the geopolitical upheavals of the end of the Cold war. But it is not at all clear, as the global economy changes and rebalances at bewildering speed that the ILO is doing everything it should in Europe or that it is doing it in the right way.

Here in Oslo you can help us to get it right, and I would like to ask you to give us your frank and honest guidance.

In this regard, I have made it a particular point to reach out to strengthen partnerships with sister international and regional organizations which I feel sure can be critical to the ILO’s effectiveness. The presence of the representatives of some of these partners here in Oslo is welcome testimony to the progress that we are making.

In this European gathering I want to particularly thank Commissioner Andor for his commitment to strengthening our work with the Commission in very concrete ways. We will keep working on this.

And in Oslo, I am mindful that the joint ILO-IMF Conference hosted by the Government of Norway in 2010 gave us the chance to open a new chapter of interaction. This too deserves our support and attention. The presence of IMF Deputy Managing Director Min Zhu provides opportunity to say that we believe we can and should do more.

Similar considerations apply to the OECD as we saw this morning with the participation of Secretary General Gurria and also the World Bank whose President Kim I will be seeing in Washington this month.

Dear Friends,

Europeans from all corners of the region need answers to the questions we have come to Oslo to tackle. Many of them have come to doubt our will or capacity and our answers. So we need to show that we have the collective determination and the abilities to take concrete, actionable results away with us from Oslo.

I ask you to direct your fullest efforts to make sure we do just that – the stakes are high, expectations are great and time is short.

I wish you success.