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European social dialogue

The term social dialogue is mentioned in primary EU law in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Article 152 TFEU states: ‘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.’ Articles 154 and 155 TFEU further provide a procedure that combines the consultation of the social partners by the Commission with the option to leave social regulation to bipartite agreement between management and labour organised at European level. Article 154(2) states that ‘before submitting proposals in the social policy field, the Commission shall consult management and labour on the possible direction of Union action.’ Article 154(3) states that ‘if, after such consultation, the Commission considers Union action advisable, it shall consult management and labour on the content of the envisaged proposal. Management and labour shall forward to the Commission an opinion or, where appropriate, a recommendation.’

Article 155(1) provides the procedure for EU-level social partner agreements, stating that ‘should management and labour so desire, the dialogue between them at Union level may lead to contractual relations, including agreements.’ In the course of the consultation, the social partners also address the question posed by Article 154 (4) TFEU: whether they wish to initiate the process provided for in Article 155 TFEU – the bipartite social dialogue – which may lead to contractual relations, including agreements. Article 155(2) states that ‘agreements concluded at Union level shall be implemented either in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States or, in matters covered by Article 153, at the joint request of the signatory parties, by a Council decision on a proposal from the Commission.’

The forms and content of the responses of the social partners in this consultation phase may be very different. The Commission suggests that the ‘formal consultation of the social partners provided for in Article 154(3) TFEU may lead to the adoption of opinions, recommendations or agreement-based relations (including agreements) within the social partners’ sphere of competence’. If the social partners ask to deal with the issue by bipartite social dialogue, known as the autonomous route, the Commission will suspend its legislative initiative. An autonomous agreement is guided by the principle of subsidiarity, empowering national affiliates with the task of implementing such an agreement in line with national procedures and practices. Alternatively, Article 155(2) TFEU allows social partners to request that the Commission take a proposal to the Council, which leads in practice to implementation by Council directive, including all legal consequences specific to the instrument of a directive. However, should the social partners fail to reach an agreement, a fall back position exists which allows the Commission to address the issue via the normal legislative procedure, as famously occurred in the case of the European Works Council Directive in 1994.

Notions of European social dialogue

The European social partners use a very narrow definition, since they reserve the notion of social dialogue for their bipartite, autonomous work. Whenever European public authorities are involved, the social partners prefer to speak of tripartite concertation.

The European Commission sees social dialogue as encompassing both the bipartite and the tripartite processes between the European social partners themselves and between the two sides of industry and the Commission. These processes are rooted in Articles 154 and 155 TFEU and may lead to legally or contractually binding agreements. At European level, social dialogue takes two main forms: a bipartite dialogue between the European employers and trade union organisations, and a tripartite dialogue involving interaction between the social partners and the public authorities.

Key dates in the development of European social dialogue


First meetings of the social partners at Val Duchesse (Belgium) at the invitation of Jacques Delors


First formal recognition of European social dialogue by insertion into the EC Treaty by the Single European Act 1986 of a new Article 118B EC


Social partner agreement on the basic principles of social dialogue (taken up by the Treaty of Maastricht)


The Maastricht Treaty of the European Union included a protocol incorporating an Agreement on Social Policy, the result of negotiations between the European social partners. The agreement, adopted by all 11 Member States with the exception of the United Kingdom, outlined the procedure for European social dialogue.

June 1996

Adoption of Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave concluded by UNICE, CEEP and ETUC.

June 1997

The signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam resulted in the Agreement on Social Policy being incorporated into a revised Social Chapter of the EC Treaty.

December 1997

Adoption of Council Directive 97/81/EC of 15 December 1997 concerning the framework agreement on part-time work concluded by UNICE, CEEP and ETUC.

June 1999

Adoption of Council Directive 1999/70/EC of 28 June 1999 concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded by ETUC, UNICE and CEEP.

December 2001

European social partners’ declaration on social dialogue, which defines the conceptual differences between tripartite concertation, consultation and social dialogue


A framework agreement on telework was signed by the European social partners in 2002.


A framework agreement on work-related stress was signed by the European social partners in 2004.


A framework agreement on harassment and violence at work was signed by the European social partners in 2007.

December 2009

Coming into force of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which elaborates on the European social dialogue in articles 152, 154 and 155 TFEU


A framework agreement on inclusive labour markets was signed by the European social partners in 2010.

Intersectoral social dialogue

According to the Commission’s definition, intersectoral ‘covers the whole economy and labour market’ and its ‘purpose is to promote dialogue between trade unions and employers’ organisations in key areas common to all fields of employment and social affairs’. The existence of the Social Dialogue Committee (SDC) is central to this process. Founded in 1992, the SDC brings together employee representatives (ETUC, Eurocadres and the European Federation of Executives and Managerial Staff) and employer bodies (BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME and CEEP) to discuss key employment-related issues. The social partners have produced a number of notable intersectoral agreements, which were either transposed via directives or via the autonomous route. These include:

Sectoral social dialogue

European sectoral social dialogue is an instrument of EU social policy and industrial relations at sectoral level. It consists of negotiations between the European trade union and employer organisations of a specific sector of the economy. The Commission, in its Communication on ‘The European social dialogue, a force for innovation and change’, has expressed the view that the sectoral level ‘is the proper level for discussion on many issues linked to employment, such as working conditions, vocational training and industrial change, the knowledge society, demographic patterns, enlargement and globalisation’ (COM (2002) 341 final of 26 June 2002). For this reason, the Commission is committed to establishing more committees in order to ensure that all the main sectors are covered. In February 2012, there were 41 sectoral social dialogue committees, which have produced a variety of joint texts and agreements, covering over 6 million companies and 145 million workers in a range of sectors. The most recent social dialogue committee to be launched was in the food and drink industry in January 2012 . A report by Eurofound on the dynamics of European sectoral social dialogue (2008) concludes that the growing number of committees is in itself an indication of the social partners’ increasing interest in European sectoral social dialogue. In terms of outcomes, the number of texts adopted in the committees is extremely stable. With regard to the topics covered, an analysis of the texts shows the diversity of themes discussed, many of them directly related to the EU agenda. Overall, the analysis of European sectoral social dialogue highlights a variety of documents unevenly spread over the years but nevertheless increasing in number.

See also: European collective agreements; European social model; European social dialogue and implementation of agreements; European social dialogue via Articles 154-155 TFEU; European sectoral social dialogue; European social partners; EU system of industrial relations; tripartite concertation; Val Duchesse

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: 20 March, 2012