European social dialogue: preparing for accession

Negotiations over the accession to the European Union of a number of Central and Eastern European countries are progressing during 1998. This feature outlines the challenges posed to the EU social dialogue process by accession and the initiatives which have been taken to prepare governments, trade unions and employer organisations in Central and Eastern Europe to enable them to work within existing EU social dialogue structures.

Negotiations over accession to the European Union are progressing with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia, and in July 1998 the European Commission completed the first round of screening with the next wave of potential new entrants - the five "pre-in" application countries (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia). For the accession states this means a requirement both to work towards achieving the so-called "acquis communautaire" (the core body of EU legislation) and and to prepare all relevant organisations to become part of the EU decision-making process. However, a learning process is required not only in the countries applying for membership, but also in the existing Member States and the EU institutions.

The European social dialogue is no exception. While many EU trade union organisations have long-standing links with their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) through their international interest representations, and EU employers have increasingly forged commercial linkages in these countries, the uneasy legacy of many trade unions (either because of the role they played in the old regime or in the transition years) and the lack of strong employer interest representation in CEE countries (EU9709146F) has served to hinder progress in attempts to bring these organisations closer to the principle of the social dialogue, as it is practised at the European level. However, notable advances have been made by a number of European social partner organisations, and the Commission has actively fostered such activities, as well as highlighting the importance of such partnership in discussions with accession state governments.

Background

The decision to allow CEE countries to apply for membership of the European Union was taken at the Copenhagen European Council summit in 1993. Even before that date, and certainly since, the forging of closer links between the Union and the CEE countries has continued apace through the conclusion of association agreements - such "Europe agreements" were signed with Poland and Hungary in 1991, with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria in 1993, with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1995 and with Slovenia in 1996. This process was based on a pre-accession strategy concluded at the Essen Council in 1994 and latterly on the Agenda 2000 programme, launched in 1997 (EU9708143F). Under the Europe agreements, the associated countries committed themselves to approximating their legislation to that of the EU. One of the criteria for qualification for accession is the achievement of stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for the protection of minorities, as well as the development of a functioning free market economy. All these developments, it is argued, require a stable framework of industrial relations and the involvement of the representatives of business and labour in political decision-making processes.

Besides greater political stability, European enlargement is also designed to bring economic benefits both to the EU and the accession states. However, in order to gain popular acceptance, it must also be seen to boost social security and must therefore be tied in with a strong social dimension. This is set to require a significant balancing of priorities, as the accession states will seek improvements in their social situations, while the "old" Member States will be vary of a watering-down of existing standards resulting from the threat of "social dumping", posed by the entry into the Union of countries with markedly lower economic and social standards.

Although the economic situation in a large number of accession states has significantly improved since the early transition years, the economic and social situation of most ordinary working people has not reflected this. Purchasing power remains low, inequality can be seen to be growing, unemployment is high and social security is often lacking. A recent report by the European Regional Organisation of the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees (Euro-FIET) argues that, with an average expected growth rate of 5% in the accession states, income levels in these countries will reach half the average of the current Member States of the Union by 2010. There are clearly significant differences between the accession states and a number of them have already reached standards of living comparable to those of some southern Member States.

Commission aims to foster social partnership in the accession states

The opinions of the Commission on the applications for accession (these constitute part of Agenda 2000) stress the need to strengthen the social dialogue in those accession states where the social partners' organisations are still weak or insufficiently representative. The Labour and Social Affairs Council of Ministers of 7 October 1997, which involved employment ministers from the CEE countries, proposed the development of a structured dialogue between the EU and the accession states. A strategic element of this dialogue is the fixing of a framework for the social dialogue, and emphasising the need for a strong and independent dialogue between the social partners. This issue was also discussed during visits by Pádraig Flynn, the commissioner responsible for employment and social affairs, to Prague, Budapest and Warsaw in 1997 and Tallinn in 1998, where he also met with representatives of social partner organisations.

The European Commission has also lent its support to activities by the European social partners aimed at assisting their counterpart organisations in the CEE countries prepare for accession. In 1997, the Commission supported the strengthening of the European integration committees established by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in each of the accession states, as well as the organisation of a number of events and conferences at intersectoral and sectoral level and in some border regions. The Commission has also supported the strengthening of employers' organisations, which remain weak in a significant number of accession countries. A number of exchanges of experience have been organised throughout 1997 and 1998 by the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and its member federations. For example, two meetings have so far taken place between employer organisations from Central and Western Europe. The most recent, held in Prague in January 1998, looked at four main questions: collective bargaining and the legislative process, health and safety, social protection and human resources management.

The Commission sees the importance of strong social partner organisations not only as participants in negotiations on potential legislation but also in their implementation at national, regional or company level (eg through European Works Councils).

The 1995 White Paper on the preparation of the associated countries of Central and Eastern Europe for integration into the internal market of the Union, which provides the basis for the integration process, also highlights the importance of the involvement of social partner organisations in the legislative process. However, trade union organisations in particular have criticised this White Paper for leaving too much leeway open in the area of harmonisation of legislation, which - it is argued - could lead not only to different outcomes in different accession states, but also to the social dimension remaining low on the agenda. The chapter on social policy and action in the White Paper deals with the following main areas:

  • equal opportunities for men and women;
  • coordination of social security schemes;
  • health and safety at work; and
  • labour law and working conditions.

In the area of equal opportunities, many CEE countries had achieved a high level of equality prior to transition. With the "marketisation" of their economies, many of the provisions which have enabled greater equality of opportunity have fallen away and unemployment and poverty have hit women particularly hard. The White Paper points to the importance of the enforcement and implementation of the principle of equal pay for equal work enshrined in Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome. There are six EU Directives in the area of equality which must, in principle, be implemented by all applicant states, covering:

The first three Directives on this list are to be included in the first stage of legislative measures by the accession states.

The coordination of social security schemes can be seen as a necessary prerequisite for establishing freedom of movement and therefore requires the implementation of four main principles:

  • only one set of legislation can be applicable (to ensure that social security is payable in only one Member State);
  • equality of treatment (giving migrant workers the same obligations and benefits as nationals of a Member State);
  • retention of rights acquired in another Member State; and
  • aggregation of periods of insurance or residence.

The implementation in the first wave of the Directive on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the health and safetyof workers (89/391/EEC) is seen as another key priority for the accession states.

In order to lay down a common basis of labour legislation, applicant countries will be liable to transpose the Directives on:

A particular challenge will be posed by the implementation of the European Works Councils Directive and any other potential legislation on worker information and consultation, as systems in this area are underdeveloped in many of the accession states.

Initiatives taken in the sectoral social dialogue

Among the pioneers in the area of the establishment of links with counterpart sectoral social partner organisations in the CEE countries are Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce, representing the interests of workers and businesses in the European commerce sector (EU9807115F). On 29 May 1998, Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce organised a day of discussion with Estonian employer and trade union representatives in Tallinn on the theme of EU enlargement. The event was arranged with the support of DGV and TAIEX, a specialised agency within the European Commission.

At the event, the European social partners stressed the importance of their social dialogue in promoting employment and securing the social dimension of European integration and welcomed the future participation of their Estonian counterparts in this dialogue. Euro-FIET underlined the importance of strong and constructive labour relations in Estonia to ensure the success of accession in the long term. Speaking on behalf of the Estonian Trade Union Confederation, its general secretary Tiit Kaadu stressed the need for a speedy harmonisation of labour laws to reach European standards. He outlined national priorities in the social dialogue with government as being the achievement of a higher standard of social security and the introduction of a minimum wage. Speaking for the consolidated employers' organisation in Estonia, Eve Päärendson, welcomed the process of European integration and expressed her anticipation that this would lead to greater investment and economic stability, as well as encouraging freedom of movement. In relation to the harmonisation of labour legislation, she argued that this should be done in close consultation with the social partners. Contributions from speakers representing sectoral unions and multinational employers in the commerce sector highlighted the difficulties ahead in the implementation of European labour legislation in countries without a strong tradition of collective bargaining. Many of the previously state-owned undertakings have no collective agreements and in many cases a low level of unionisation, making the development of dialogue at this level difficult.

All participants in the event welcomed the initiative and rated it as a useful exchange of information which needs to be continued in the process towards accession. The meeting formed the first in a series of conferences which is intended to cover all 10 applicant CEE countries.

Commentary

The accession process currently remains overshadowed by the preparations for Economic and Monetary Union. In many ways mirroring developments in the run up to 1992 and the Single Market, the social dimension of accession remains relatively unexplored. This is increasingly causing concern, particularly among representatives of labour who see the likelihood of movements of capital to the CEE countries in order to exploit lower wages and social costs. The creation of a minimum floor of social rights is therefore seen to be crucial.

There is an increasing awareness among the Commission and the EU social partners' organisations of the need to prepare social partners' organisations in the accession states for their participation in the sectoral and intersectoral social dialogue process and therefore their potential role in legislative initiatives. Initiatives such as those taken in the commerce sector are therefore particularly important and timely. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research & Consulting Ltd)

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