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CSR green paper will turn white

January 2002

The European Commission’s green paper on corporate social responsibility now looks certain to be followed by a more comprehensive white paper that could usher in Europe-wide legislation on the subject.

Richard Howitt, Labour MEP for the East of England with responsibility for CSR and ethical trade, told a major European Union conference in Brussels: ‘There will be a white paper’.

Although its contents will not be decided until responses to the green paper have been digested, he said that the European Commission was already looking at creating ‘some kind of CSR ombudsman with powers at EU level’ and might ‘advance and apply’ certain ethical standards such as SA8000.

The Commission is also examining the idea of developing a code of business conduct that would be ‘a collection of existing codes’, and of producing official EC social ratings of companies.

Although the EC has been keen to allay business fears that it is planning a strong regulatory framework on CSR, there are suggestions that it may propose a Europe-wide pensions disclosure regulation on socially responsible investment in the white paper or – less likely – mandatory social and environmental reporting.

Howitt, who is responsible for overseeing the whole process, is a supporter of greater regulation on CSR and told the 1000 delegates at the Brussels conference that he personally felt the green paper had ‘got it wrong’ by putting too much stress on the voluntary nature of corporate social responsibility.

He said the EC had to show ‘a seriousness to implement these policies and not simply talk about them’. However, Howitt stressed that he favoured an ‘evolutionary approach’ to CSR, ‘with regulation providing minimum standards and voluntary action providing higher standards’.

He said that there was ‘no secret conspiracy’ to use the white paper to introduce social rights legislation that the EU had failed to push through in the past.

A number of European politicians support Howitt’s stance on regulation. The Belgian minister for social integration, Johan Vande Lanotte, whose government hosted the Brussels conference, said: ‘We must not attempt to avoid some legislation’ and argued that the EC should tell companies ‘what has been “nice to do” is now “have to do”.’

However, Anna Diamantopolou, European commissioner for employment and social affairs, said it was more important for the EC to become an advocate for CSR. ‘Our first role should be to raise awareness by supporting, piloting and publicizing examples of best practice,’ she said.

EU politicians stress that no decisions have yet been taken on the contents of the white paper. ‘We still have to decide at what level politics has to intervene,’ said Laurette Onkelinx, Belgian minister for employment.

The Belgian presidency of the EU, which has made CSR one of the main topics of its six-month tenure, hands over to Spain on 1 January.

The EC’s further thoughts on how it should progress on CSR are not likely to be known before mid-2002.

The work of drawing up the white paper is likely to fall within the period of the subsequent Danish presidency.

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