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Euro blueprint sets out softly-softly approach

April 2006

The European Commission’s second white paper on CSR draws a line under more than five years of deliberation by officials. EP examines what it says

What is the purpose of an EC white paper?
To outline future commitments and policies on a specific topic.

We had a white paper on CSR in 2002. Why a second one?
The first white paper made few concrete proposals. Its main outcome was the ‘multi stakeholder forum’ of business groups, non-governmental organizations and unions that the Commission hoped would inform its policy-making. This second white paper was intended to elaborate on EC policy in this area, taking into account the forum’s deliberations.

So what did the forum decide?
Not a lot. It was riven from the outset by polarized views, with business groups favouring a voluntary approach and others wanting more regulation. When the forum finally came out in support of the voluntary approach, NGOs broke ranks and withdrew their support.

What position does the new paper take on the voluntary versus regulatory debate?
It comes down firmly against any specific EC regulations on CSR, arguing that imposing ‘additional obligations and administrative requirements’ on business ‘would be contrary to the principle of better regulation’.

How has that been received?
Business lobby groups, such as the European employers organization Unice, that do not favour regulation, are pleased. NGOs, which were hoping for signs that regulation would at least remain in prospect, are not. However, it’s not just NGOs that are upset: British Euro MP Richard Howitt, a former EC rapporteur on CSR, says the paper, which is only 12 pages long, ‘has dumped five years of debate and consultation into a black hole’. It may also upset companies that have developed CSR policies and would now like regulation to level the playing field.

Is there any glimmer of hope for the supporters of regulation?
The white paper pledges to ‘reconvene meetings of the multi-stakeholder forum at regular intervals’. That at least leaves the door open for NGOs and unions to make their case.

If there are no plans for regulation, what measures has the white paper come up with?
The main one is the European Alliance for CSR, which is described as an ‘umbrella for new or existing CSR initiatives’ by companies large and small.

What will the Alliance look like?
That remains unclear. The white paper says it will not be a ‘legal instrument’ and that there will be ‘no formal requirements for declaring support’. The EC will not even maintain a list of companies that are in the Alliance, whose ‘open nature’ will bring companies and stakeholders together in ‘coalitions of co-operation’ on areas such as supply chain management. The companies will have to keep the Commission informed of what they are doing. The Alliance will ‘not imply any new financial obligations for the Commission’, though it could attract money from the existing CSR budget.

Any other measures?
The EC undertakes to continue to raise awareness of CSR, especially in new European Union member states; encourage voluntary transparency by companies on public health issues; support research; ‘seek to address CSR issues’ in trade talks and agreements; and raise corporate responsibility as an issue at the EU-Africa Business Forum this autumn. It will also urge universities and business schools to bring the topic into the mainstream curriculum.

Any significant omissions?
There is no mention of socially responsible investment. Earlier suggestions that guidelines on measurement, reporting and assurance would be developed have gone, as have previous commitments to foster responsible business practice by changing the rules on public procurement and bring in social and eco-labels for products.

And what about the timetable for the measures it has put forward?
There are no time targets for implementing any of the key measures.

see also pages one and twelve

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