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European social partners


‘Social partners’ is a term generally used in Europe to refer to representatives of management and labour (employers’organisations and trade unions). The term ‘European social partners’ specifically refers to those organisations at EU level which are engaged in the European social dialogue, as provided for under Article 154 and 155 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (1.41 MB PDF). Primary Union law for the first time refers to the notion of ‘social partners’ in Article 152 TFEU:

The Union recognises and promotes the role of the social partners at its level, taking into account the diversity of national systems. It shall facilitate dialogue between the social partners, respecting their autonomy.

The identification of organisations to be included in the category of European social partner raises potential difficulties. Although the TFEU never uses the word representativeness, the European Commission has clearly been drawn to this criterion for identifying the relevant social partner organisations. The question of the representativeness of the social partner organisations at European level is fundamental to their right to be consulted by the Commission under Article 154 TFEU.

In its ‘Communication concerning the application of the Agreement on Social Policy’ (COM (93) 600 final, Brussels, 14 December 1993), the Commission set out criteria for the representativeness of organisations which are still valid today. According to the Commission, organisations should:

  • be cross-industry or relate to specific sectors or categories and be organised at European level;
  • consist of organisations which are themselves an integral and recognised part of Member State social partner structures, have the capacity to negotiate agreements and which are representative of all Member States, as far as possible;
  • have adequate structures to ensure their effective participation in the consultation process.

European social partner organisations

The Commission regularly publishes a list of European social partner organisations which, in the Commission’s view, comply with these criteria and, therefore, are consulted by the Commission under Article 154 TFEU. As of May 2014, the list includes 88 organisations (of which 81 are sectoral organisations) and is divided into five groups:

  • general cross-industry organisations (CEEP, ETUC, BUSINESSEUROPE);
  • cross-industry organisations representing certain categories of workers or undertakings (EUROCADRES, UEAPME, CEC);
  • specific organisations (Eurochambres);
  • sectoral organisations representing employers (65 organisations);
  • sectoral European trade union organisations (16 organisations).

This official list of European social partner organisations is adapted whenever new social dialogue committees are set up and/or in the light of studies on representativeness which the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) is carrying out at the request of the Commission (see Eurofound’s studies on sectoral representativeness). In 2014, Eurofound published a new study on the representativeness of the EU level cross-sectoral social partners.

The European social partners are either engaged in sectoral social dialogue or in cross-industry social dialogue. In these cases, representativeness is not based on the criteria mentioned, but on the social partners’ mutual recognition of their capacity to engage in collective bargaining. As of May 2014, there were a total of 43 sectoral social dialogue committees.

Prerogatives of the European social partners

prerogatives of the European social partners within the policy processes at European level are defined by Articles 154 and 155 TFEU. The competences of the social partners in the social policy field are defined as follows:

  • social partners are procedurally involved in the genesis of any Commission initiative in the social policy field (Art. 154.2 and 154.3 TFEU), both in the direction and the content of a proposal;
  • they may decide on how they wish to implement their agreements: ‘either in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States or, in matters covered by Article 153 TFEU, at the joint request of the signatory parties, by a Council decision on a proposal from the Commission’ (Art. 155.2 TFEU);
  • social partners may decide on autonomous agreements in all social policy fields – even those not falling under the competences of EU institutions as defined in Art. 154 TFEU (Art. 155.1 TFEU).

There is also a discrepancy between the two Commission Communications on this subject; that of 1993 (COM (93) 600 final – see above) and the 1998 Communication from the Commission, adapting and promoting the social dialogue at Community level. The decision annexed to the latter requires the sectoral social partners only to be ‘representative of several (emphasis added) Member States’. The difference may be explained by the fact that, in contrast to the cross-sectoral social dialogue, some sectoral activities exist in only some Member States (such as maritime transport). Consequently, the criterion of geographical coverage seems to be more encompassing for the cross-sectoral social partners than for sectoral EU level ones.

In practice, the European social partners have not used their rights very extensively. This is mainly due to the difficulties in reconciling different interests when it comes to formulating joint agreements. However, there are some cases of successful cross-sector agreements (on parental leave (25 KB PDF), part-time work, fixed-term work, telework (1.36 MB PDF), stress at work, harassment and violence and inclusive labour markets (see also EU1005011I). However, there are also examples where the social partners failed to reach agreements (as in the cases of the information and consultation of employees, Temporary agency work, or the recasting of the directive on European Works Councils).

European social partners’ work programmes

As social dialogue is considered to be a unique and indispensable component of the European social model it has been official EU policy to extend the role of the European social partners. Over the last few decades, there have been several Commission Communications and declarations at meetings of the Council of the European Union which have all pointed in this direction. This has been willingly picked up by the social partners.

In its Communication of 26 June 2002, the Commission called on the European social partners to develop their autonomous dialogue further and to establish joint work programmes. In their second joint multi-annual work, the European social partners emphasised the contribution of the first joint work programme for 2003–2005 to implement the Lisbon Strategy, sharpening the focus of European social dialogue and enhancing the social partners’ autonomy. They highlighted the main achievements of the first programme: the framework agreements on telework and work-related stress, the framework of actions for the lifelong development of competencies and qualifications, and action on gender equality.

The second work programme (2006–2008) aimed to develop further the social partners’ autonomy. The European social partners intended to report on the implementation of the framework agreements and frameworks of actions and to ‘develop their common understanding of these instruments and how they impact at the various levels of social dialogue’. They also negotiated a ‘Framework agreement on harassment and violence at work’. In 2007, the European cross-industry social partners published a joint analysis of the ‘Key challenges facing European labour markets’. In 2008, they reached a framework agreement on parental leave, revising their first agreement and the directive which implemented it (Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave concluded by UNICE, CEEP and the ETUC).

Under the third work programme (2009–2010), the European cross-industry social partners negotiated an autonomous framework agreement on inclusive labour markets (see also EU1005011I) and managed a project on national studies on economic and social change in the EU27 in order to effectively manage change and restructuring.

The current social partners’ work programme (630 KB PDF) running from 2012 to 2014 was drawn up in the context of the financial crisis. It stresses that in order to create more and better jobs Europe needs well-functioning labour markets and a labour force with the necessary qualifications. The appropriate framework conditions must therefore be established to ensure employment opportunities for all workers and to allow for the integration, retention and development of workers in European labour markets. The work programme gives priority to the issue of young people in the labour market and commits the social partners to making concrete recommendations to the EU institutions on this topic. To address specifically the issue of youth unemployment, the social partners concluded a framework of actions on youth employment in June 2013.

Other priority areas in the social partners’ current work programme are gender equality, education and lifelong learning, mobility and economic migration, the better implementation and impact of social dialogue instruments, and the influence of European economic governance on social dialogue.

See also: European collective agreements; European sectoral social dialogue; EU system of industrial relations; European social dialogue and implementation of agreements; European social dialogue via Articles 154-155 TFEU; Harassment and violence at work; Open method of coordination; Representativeness of European sectoral social partner organisations; Social dialogue summits; Social Policy Agenda; Tripartite concertation.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
Page last updated: 16 June, 2014