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Brussels To Side With Business On CSR

Financial Times

March 12, 2006

By Hugh Williamson, Raphael Minder and Wolfgang Proissl

The European Commission plans to side with business in largely excluding trade unions and non-governmental groups from a new European corporate social responsibility initiative, according to Commission documents obtained by the Financial Times.

Officials confirmed the European Union's executive body would launch a pro-business European alliance for CSR on March 22 in Brussels. Chief executives from several of the companies already involved in the initiative plan to join the launch ceremony.

The decision represents a defeat for trade unions and NGOs that have lobbied the Commission for years to introduce regulations and voluntary benchmarks on corporate accountability. Commission officials said the draft could still be subject to minor changes.

Guenter Verheugen, EU industry commissioner, told the FT the Commission had moved towards a pro-business view on CSR over the past year. Originally the Commission's plans looked very different. The department responsible wanted to publish naming-and-shaming lists [of companies] and to create a monitoring system for the implementation of the CSR principles. I had to halt this enthusiasm for new regulations.

The Commission sees CSR as a win-win business opportunity to improve European competitiveness, the draft Commission communication paper said.

The alliance would be a loose political umbrella for new and existing CSR initiatives by large companies [and] small and medium-sized enterprises that did not demand businesses show results of such initiatives, the draft paper says.

The Commission continues to attach importance to dialogue with all stakeholders, but also wishes to give recognition to enterprises as the primary actors in CSR the document adds.

In recent years thousands of companies have launched CSR programmes in western and developing countries, but critics argue that many are little more than public relations window-dressing.

Walter Cerfeda, a deputy leader of the Brussels-based European Trade Union Confederation, rejected the alliance proposal, and attacked the Commission for ignoring recent requests for consultations on the communication before it was presented.

Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth, the environmental pressure group, complained that Mr Verheugen last year intervened on the CSR issue to strengthen the Commission's pro-business stance. Originally the Commission wanted to improve social standards but now it only wants to boost business competitiveness, he said.

A spokesman for Mr Verheugen said the suggestion that the German commissioner had hijacked the process was ridiculous.

A spokeswoman for Vladimir Spidla, the commissioner responsible for social affairs, said he believed that demands for compulsory legislation were unrealistic.

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