European social partners
The European social partners are the EU-level employer organisations and trade unions that are engaged in European social dialogue, as provided for under Articles 154 and 155 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Primary EU law refers to the concept of ‘social partners’ for the first time in Article 152 of the 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.
Background and status
The European Commission uses ‘representativeness’ criteria in order to identify the social partner organisations with the right to be consulted under Article 154 of the TFEU. A 1993 Communication from the Commission set down the criteria for the representativeness of social partner organisations, which are still valid today.  According to the Communication, such organisations should:
· be cross-industry or relate to specific sectors or categories and be organised at European level
· consist of organisations that are themselves an integral and recognised part of Member State social partner structures, have the capacity to negotiate agreements and are representative of all Member States, as far as possible
· have adequate structures to ensure their effective participation in the consultation process
The Commission regularly publishes a list of European social partner organisations that it considers comply with these criteria and are therefore consulted by the Commission under Article 154 of the TFEU.  As of January 2019, the list includes 88 organisations (of which 81 are sectoral organisations). The list is adapted whenever a new social dialogue committee is set up or as a result of representativeness studies conducted by Eurofound at the request of the Commission. In 2014, Eurofound published a study on the representativeness of the EU-level cross-industry social partners.
- European Commission: Cross-industry social dialogue
- EurWORK: Representativeness studies
- Publication: Representativeness of the social partners in the European cross-industry social dialogue
Sectoral social dialogue
The European social partners also engage in sectoral social dialogue, which occurs within the sectoral social dialogue committees. In this case, representativeness is based not on the Commission’s criteria but on the social partners’ mutual recognition of their capacity to engage in collective bargaining. As of January 2019, there were 43 sectoral social dialogue committees.
- European Commission: Sectoral social dialogue
Prerogatives of the European social partners
The prerogatives of the European social partners within the policy processes at European level are defined by Articles 154 and 155 of the TFEU. Their competences are as follows:
- The social partners are procedurally involved in the early stages of any Commission initiative in the social policy field, in terms of both 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 [of the TFEU], at the joint request of the signatory parties, by a Council decision on a proposal from the Commission’.
- The social partners may decide on autonomous agreements in all social policy fields, even those that do not fall under the competences of EU institutions as defined in Article 154 of the TFEU.
In practice, the European social partners have not used their rights very extensively. While there are some examples of successful cross-sector agreements (see ‘Work programmes’ below), there are also many cases in which they failed to reach agreements (as in the cases of the provision of information to and consultation of employees, temporary agency work and the recasting of the directive on European works councils).
- European Industrial Relations Dictionary: Information and consultation
- European Industrial Relations Dictionary: Temporary agency work
- European Industrial Relations Dictionary: European works councils
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. Indeed, 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 multiannual work programme, running from 2006 to 2008, the social partners emphasised the contribution of the first joint work programme (2003–2005) to the implementation of the Lisbon Strategy and highlighted their main achievements, namely the framework agreements on telework and work-related stress. They also negotiated a framework agreement on harassment and violence at work and reached a revised framework agreement on parental leave during the second work programme.
- European Commission: Framework agreement on telework
- European Commission: Framework agreement on work-related stress
- European Commission: Framework agreement on harassment and violence at work
- European Commission: Framework agreement on parental leave
As part of the third work programme (2009–2010, extended to 2011), the social partners negotiated an autonomous framework agreement on inclusive labour markets and oversaw a project on national studies in order to manage change and restructuring. The fourth work programme (2012–2014) stressed that, in order to create more and better jobs, Europe needs well-functioning labour markets and a labour force with the necessary qualifications. The social partners concluded a framework of actions on youth employment in June 2013. The fifth work programme (2015–2017) focused on eight areas, including work–life balance, the gender pay gap and active ageing, on which they reached an agreement in 2017.
- European Commission: Framework agreement on active ageing and an inter-generational approach
- CEEP: Framework of actions on youth employment
- European Commission: Framework agreement on inclusive labour markets
On 27 June 2016, the EU institutions and the European social partners signed a statement entitled ‘A new start for social dialogue’, approximately 30 years after the Val Duchesse meeting that established European social dialogue. The statement includes some elements of a new work programme and new commitments from the EU institutions, mainly the Commission, to take into account the position of social partners.
- European Commission: A new start for social dialogue
In February 2019, the social partners presented their sixth autonomous work programme, for 2019–2021, which addresses six priorities: digitalisation; improving the performance of labour markets and social systems; skills; addressing psychosocial aspects and risks at work; capacity-building for a stronger social dialogue; and the circular economy. As part of the digitalisation programme, a working seminar will address some issues before the launch of an autonomous framework agreement negotiation, the only one provided for in this programme.
- BusinessEurope: European social dialogue: Work programme 2019–2021