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The preparatory work for this forum has shown that this is a difficult, sensitive question, which can be posed from different standpoints, reflecting participants' often diverging interests. It may be a matter of eliminating the "rigidities" inherent in social protection models and labour law in order to balance businesses' need for competitiveness and the unpredictable behaviour of markets. It may also entail adopting new approaches to reconciling employees' need for security and professional assertion with employers' adaptation requirements. Other considerations are achieving a fair distribution of the costs of change and satisfying individual needs for compatibility between work organisation and private life.

This "reconciliation" may be governed by the rules of global market competition or by the principles of social cohesion and the need to ensure equal access to well-being. It accordingly concerns policy choices and power relations that must be rebalanced or brought under control.

The social pact and the welfare state, which have their foundation in the integrating role of work, are in fact based on the concept of lasting mutualisation of benefits, i.e. creation of a win-win situation benefiting both employers and employees, and on collective regulation as a mechanism for reconciling specific interests. However, labour flexibility hits at the heart of the social pact, since it introduces the idea that work may no longer be an entitlement (encompassing the concept of long-term security) but a social condition divorced from the principle of mutualisation of benefits and dependent on the global economic situation. On what terms then can flexibility and social cohesion be reconciled and what could be the substance of a new social regulation process?

The Council of Europe defines social cohesion as the capacity of a society to ensure the welfare of all its members (through institutions, market forces and forms of solidarity specific to the family unit and the community), minimising the effects of polarisation. Social cohesion accordingly encompasses concepts of continuity, of building the long-term future and of democratic processes.

The type of social cohesion which has developed in Europe based on the Fordist model is rooted in the ideas of stability, continuity and progress. By including the right to work in their constitutions, states made protection of the labour force the basis for present and future collective solidarity. Individuals could look to the future, confident that coming generations' well-being would surpass their own. The hope inherent in building for the future became a catalyst of social cohesion.

Flexibility is defined by reference to various forms of discontinuity (in the number of workers, workers' skills and working hours) and imposed or voluntary adaptability of labour. The idea of seeking short-term solutions is accordingly embodied in the definitions. Apart from being a departure from the mass organisation of labour, flexibility may make the vision of the future more insecure and weaken individual and collective identities asserted through work.

The substance of future negotiations must accordingly be based on two means of regulation, which have become conflicting in their timeframe and the type of result they strive for: social cohesion, which is achieved in the long term through collective solidarity, and flexibility, which is achieved in the short term through individual adaptability.

How can they be reconciled?

A number of possibilities can be envisaged. For instance, an assessment might be made of the effectiveness of labour regulations (developed under the Fordist model) in the light of the new dynamic processes that are emerging, in particular shorter production cycles, the "lean and mean" business model, relocation of certain businesses and access to unprotected workforces. This might lead to the conclusion that, in its acceptation most at variance with social cohesion, "flexibility" means depriving the labour force of institutional protection, that is to say transforming it into a market-regulated resource with heavy emphasis on individual negotiation of contracts.

However, thought might also be given to introducing new rights to accompany the transition processes, such as safeguarding jobs skills, catering for discontinuous career patterns, combating ageism and so on. The aim would be to give flexibility an appropriate institutional framework geared to a social cohesion objective.

As compared with a collective effort to build the future - an essential component of the European social model - flexibility individualises hopes and makes the future insecure. A survey recently conducted in Italy (by Eurispes) showed that none of the workers interviewed (a sample aged between 18 and 39, in various forms of employment: temporary, contract-based, project-based, on-call, permanent, etc.) felt they were stakeholders in a collective project, and, since they had already given up on their personal prospects, few of them had any hope in the future, which constitutes a more serious problem. In the face of such feelings, apart from providing for "flexible" social protection measures, the question of the sharing of responsibilities at the individual and community levels must be posed. How can we protect ourselves from unacceptable forms of flexibility and how can we gain more power in order to achieve the kind of flexibility we want? Understanding how responsibilities are distributed can thus lead to the negotiation of areas of co-responsibility. This entails examining "welfare society" models in which, apart from the state and the public, businesses, pension funds and other players integrate social concerns in their long-term objectives.

These are but some considerations among the many questions raised by the reconciliation of labour flexibility and social cohesion, which the Council of Europe, as a guarantor of democracy and the individual well-being of all members of society, wishes to submit to the participants in the 2005 Forum. This debate takes place in the context of the search for a form of co-responsibility which can meet the challenges that globalisation poses for a social model founded on the principle of work as a source of security, protection, identity and hope in the future