European employers' organisations forge closer links within social dialogue

In December 1998, the presidents of UNICE and of UEAPME - which represents small and medium-sized enterprises - agreed to strengthen collaboration between the two European employers' organisations within the social dialogue, by signing a cooperation agreement.

On 4 December 1998, a cooperation agreement was signed between the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the European Association of Craft and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME). UNICE is the main intersectoral European-level organisation representing private sector employers, while UEAPME represents many small and medium-sized enterprises (SME s) in Europe and in some Central and Eastern European countries.

UEAPME was originally formed as a result of the amalgamation of various European trade associations and organisations of medium-sized enterprises in 1979. Its member organisations currently represent a total of 5 million businesses employing some 20 million people. The organisation has a number of committees spanning the major policy areas of the EU, which meet to draw up its policy positions. The committees have set up a number of working groups to deal with topics of major importance to SMEs, such as the simplification of administrative burdens and the creation of businesses. The main stated objectives of UEAPME are to: inform its members about developments in European policy; promote joint action on the part of national organisations at European level; and ensure that the interests and views of its members are understood and reflected by the EU institutions.

Cooperation agreement

The cooperation agreement, which relates to the central intersectoral social dialogue process, was signed by George Jacobs, the president of UNICE, and Jan Kamminga, the president of UEAPME. The agreement - stated to be "based on mutual recognition, trust and good faith" - takes the form of a private accord between the two organisations, which has not yet been made public. According to UEAPME, the agreement provides that employers' representatives will have the same rights in preparatory meetings of employers' organisations to discuss policy, but no representatives has a veto over any negotiations. The agreement is said to be based upon the principle that the highest endeavours will be pursued to reach consensus on the issues or positions to be defended in the social dialogue, whilst at the same time respecting the autonomy of the two organisations. UNICE, as "leader" for the employers' side, has pledged to consult UEAPME prior to expressing positions on behalf of employers in negotiations or other meetings of the European social dialogue. Lastly, presidents Jacobs and Kamminga concluded that "the cooperation agreement confirms that the common aim of UNICE and UEAPME is to defend the interests of companies and to help establish a framework conducive to competitiveness, growth and employment."

Impetus behind the agreement

The agreement has been developed for a number of reasons. An important impetus was the new role and competence given to the social partners following the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union and the annexed social policy Protocol and Agreement- notably allowing them to reach agreements which can take the place of legislation in some circumstances. These new powers have successfully been put into effect at the intersectoral level with the negotiation of the framework agreements on parental leave (TN9801201S), part-time work (EU9706131F) - both of which have been implemented by Council Directives - and fixed-term contracts (EU9901147F). The increased importance attributed to the social dialogue in the development of social policy is seen by some to necessitate the inclusion and incorporation of a wider range of employer interests, and notably the interests of SMEs, which have arguably been overshadowed by the interests of larger employers. In signing the UNICE-UEAPME agreement, presidents Kamminga and Jacobs stated that "the Treaty on European Union foresees a strong role for social partners in the development of social policy at European level. We both believe that it is desirable to join forces in defending the interests of European companies in the social dialogue."

A second reason for the cooperation agreement is that UEAPME has long claimed to be the legitimate representative of SMEs and has argued in the past that these interests are insufficiently represented by UNICE. This argument became most visible when UEAPME took a case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in respect of the 1996 Directive on parental leave (96/34/EC), which implemented a framework agreement between UNICE, the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). UEAPME claimed that the Directive should be annulled or ruled inapplicable to its members, on the grounds that it had been excluded from the negotiating process for the agreement. The case was, however, dismissed as inadmissible by the ECJ in June 1998 (EU9807121N). Nevertheless, the Court's decision does not rule out future challenges against the applicability of EU Directives by organisations which can prove to be insufficiently represented in the negotiation of framework agreements.

Lastly, the conclusion of the agreement can arguably be related to the fact that SMEs play an integral part in the European economy, and UNICE's recognition of this importance. UEAPME argues that SMEs employ more than 70 million people in Europe, or 70% of the working population. In addition, SMEs have created and maintained jobs at a higher rate than larger enterprises, which can be related to their faster and more flexible reaction to market fluctuations. Moreover, SMEs are given a key role in job-creation strategies under the current EU Employment Guidelines (EU9810130F). Therefore, the cooperation agreement recognises the importance of incorporating the interests of SMEs in negotiations.

Commentary

The cooperation agreement represents a positive development: firstly, for UEAPME, as its interests and opinions are recognised more formally and on a new scale; and secondly, for the social dialogue in general, as the agreement envisages the representation of a wider range of interests in the negotiation process and thus addresses a perceived "democratic deficit" on the employers' side. Whether the agreement will assist in furthering negotiations on a range of issues within the social dialogue remains to be seen, and is somewhat dependent upon whether UNICE and UEAPME can reach consensus. At present, it too early to comment on the impact of the agreement. (Peter Foster, ECOTEC Research and Consulting)

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