The European social dialogue - impasse or new opportunities?

In May 1998, the European Commission published a Communication on Adapting and promoting the social dialogue at Community level, proposing a number of modifications to the current operation of the European intersectoral and sectoral social dialogue processes. The future development of the social dialogue, particularly at intersectoral level, was also the subject of debate at a "mini-summit" called by the Commission in early June 1998, which produced relatively little concrete progress.

A number of important developments took place with regard to the future of the European social dialogue process in May-June 1998. On 20 May 1998, the European Commission published its Communication on Adapting and promoting the social dialogue at Community level. This follows the consultation process on a previous Communication on the Development of the social dialogue at Community level, issued in September 1996 (EU9702102F). The new Communication seeks to take account of the comments received and proposes a number of modifications to the current operation of the European intersectoral and sectoral social dialogue processes.

The future development of the social dialogue, particularly at intersectoral level, was also the subject of debate at a "mini-summit" called by the Commission on 2 June 1998, after the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) had declined to enter into negotiations on national worker information and consultation under the procedure currently governed by the Maastricht social policy Protocol and Agreement. The main aim of the meeting was to explore the role of the social partners in view of their new responsibilities under the Amsterdam Treaty.


The European social dialogue process has increasingly become the focus of attention in the EU social policy arena in recent years. This was partly the result of the new competencies granted to European employer and trade union representatives under the Maastricht social policy Protocol and Agreement. The period since has seen two much publicised framework agreements - on parental leave in December 1995 (TN9801201S) and part-time work in May 1997 (EU9706131F) - both of which have since been implemented through Community Directives. At the same time, significant progress has been achieved in the sectoral social dialogue at European level as, for example, the July 1997 framework agreement on employment in agriculture has shown (EU9709145F).

Nevertheless, despite these advances there have also been some significant instances where the social dialogue process has failed to build on the promise demonstrated by the above examples. Most notably, over 1997-8 the European institutions launched a number of appeals to the European social partner organisations to take on issues of key concern to the European social policy debate. Thus, for example, the Labour and Social Affairs Council under the Dutch Presidency of the first half of 1997 called upon the social partners to define guidelines for restructuring following the decision by Renault to close its factory at Vilvoorde (EU9703108F). However, discussions on this issue between UNICE, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) failed to come to fruition (EU9706132F). Later in the year, the Luxembourg Presidency asked the social partners to consider actions on a number of issues such as vocational training and work organisation. Little progress has so far been made in this area. UNICE's decision, in March 1998, not to negotiate on national employee information and consultation finally prompted the Commission to call a mini-summit on the European social dialogue (EU9803192N).

The social dialogue mini-summit

The 2 June social dialogue mini-summit was attended by representatives of ETUC, UNICE and CEEP, plus the Commission President, Jacques Santer, and the European Commissioner responsible for the labour market, industrial relations and social affairs, Pádraig Flynn. According to a Commission official, the aim of the meeting was to provide a briefing and to raise the awareness of the social partners on the new expectations of the social dialogue following the extension of its competencies by the Amsterdam Treaty (EU9707135F). These were the key issues emphasised by President Santer and Commissioner Flynn in their contributions to the mini-summit. They underlined that the Commission was looking to the social partners for their ideas on how to advance the social dialogue in areas such as the European employment strategy.

Representatives of ETUC and CEEP expressed their willingness to take part fully in this strategy, both through their national members in the formulation of National Action Plans on employment (EU9805107N), as well as at European level. UNICE, however, expressed reservations about the involvement of the European social partners in this area. The employers' organisation expressed its concern about a possible breach of the principle of subsidiarity and argued that the majority of social and labour market policy issues should be addressed by governments and social partners at the national level.

After an open debate, which failed to produce any immediate concrete outcomes, the social partners resolved to discuss internally the parameters of negotiation on social policy issues at European level. It is expected that a list will be compiled of all the issues which could be discussed at the European level in the near future. It is anticipated that a seminar will be held towards the end of 1998 to discuss such proposals further with the Commission.

Speaking at the meeting, Commissioner Flynn said that his services would be preparing a Communication, to be published in autumn 1998, on the organisation of work and adaptability. Mr Flynn also confirmed that the Commission would be tabling a draft Directive on national worker information and consultation before the summer recess.

Following the mini-summit, ETUC and CEEP issued a joint statement pledging their commitment to making the European employment strategy succeed. In their statement, issued on 8 June 1998, ETUC and CEEP express their satisfaction at the advance implementation of the Amsterdam Treaty's employment title, decided upon at the November 1997 Luxembourg Employment Summit (EU9711168F). ETUC and CEEP argue that they wish to be involved in the coordination of employment policies at European level through their specific input to the June 1998 Cardiff European Council meeting (EU9806109F) and by working out a common input to the December 1998 Vienna Council. The two organisations stress that the economic guidelines framed at European level must complement the employment strategy.

In the joint statement, ETUC and CEEP also emphasise the importance of the social dialogue and collective bargaining in confronting the challenges of the single market and of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the restructuring of the economy and work organisation. They therefore wish to develop a joint framework approach, starting with the modernisation of work organisation in sectors concerned with services and goods of general interest.

The two organisations note with regret their inability go start negotiations on information and consultation at national level and express their willingness to take this forward as soon as the Commission brings forward proposed legislation.

ETUC and CEEP wish to define by mutual agreement those areas of their responsibility which can be dealt with by voluntary negotiations at European level and agreed to meet at regular intervals in the future.

A few weeks prior to the mini-summit, the Commission had published a new Communication on adapting and promoting the social dialogue at Community level. This document introduces a number of key actions to be taken as a result of the responses to the consultation process following its initial 1996 Communication concerning the development of the social dialogue at Community level.

Commission Communication on the social dialogue

Following the publication of its initial Communication on 18 September 1996, the Commission received more than 80 detailed replies from trade union and employer organisations at European level as well as national organisations, European institutions and national authorities. A European forum on the issue was held in The Hague in April 1997 and an initial synthesis of the contributions was subsequently drawn up. The new Communication draws on these responses and sets out the means which the Commission intends to use to adapt and promote the social dialogue.

The document underlines the significant headway which has already been made in the European social dialogue, particularly under the Maastricht policy Agreement (now integrated into the main body of the Treaty of Amsterdam), and in the form of joint contributions to the European employment policy debate. Significant progress has also been made in many areas in the sectoral social dialogue.

Nevertheless, it is argued that steps need to be undertaken to enable the social dialogue to contribute effectively to the changing policy requirements in relation to the European employment strategy, the accession of new Member States and EMU, and to meet the rising expectations resulting from the additional competencies accorded to European employer and trade union organisation under the Amsterdam Treaty. It is argued that closer European integration and the inclusion of new aspects in the Community framework, notably employment, has extended the scope of the social partners' activities, particularly as regards: modernising the organisation of work; anticipating structural change and providing backup for restructuring; adapting terms and conditions of employment to allow for the development of new forms of work; reconciling family life and working life; integrating young people into the world of work; and access to vocational training.

Taking account of the outcomes of the consultation process, the Commission proposes key actions in the following areas:

  • information. The Commission intends to set in place more efficient channels for the exchange of information with all the social partners and will encourage the European social partners to follow up the outcomes of the European social dialogue with their affiliates at national level;
  • consultation. The Commission aims to replace the existing structures at sectoral level by new, more flexible social dialogue bodies. At cross-industry level, the advisory committees will be rationalised and the Commission will ensure that all social partners are effectively consulted on ongoing policy developments;
  • employment partnership. The Commission proposes to reform the Standing Committee on Employment in order to strengthen the exchange between the Commission, the Council and the social partners, on the basis of the Council Resolution on the 1998 Employment Guidelines; and
  • negotiation. The Commission seeks to continue to encourage the further development of contractual relations both at cross-industry and sectoral levels.

An additional important and challenging task is to encourage the applicant countries to the EU to develop their own independent social dialogue structures and activities, and to assist the social partners to develop links with their counterparts in these countries.

Promoting the exchange of information

The Communication argues that access to information is crucial for the development of the social dialogue, as it helps the European social partners to keep their members up to date on matters of direct interest to them, makes them aware of ongoing policy developments and thus provides the necessary input for dialogue at European level. Responses to the consultation process on the last Communication showed that this information flow was currently considered to be insufficient.

The Commission points to some tools recently developed to supplement its general information policy:

  • a social dialogue newsletter intended to keep the social partners abreast of major events;
  • an annual status report on the social dialogue;
  • an interactive database with an electronic network to which the European social partners will be connected on line is under development with Commission support (European Social Dialogue Online, ESDO); and
  • the institution of quarterly information forums bringing together the social partners for a general exchange of information.

The Commission now intends to reinforce the exchange of information and to take steps to improve the diffusion of information to all European organisations representing management and labour. It also makes a commitment to ensure that the results of the dialogue (recommendations, joint opinions and agreements) are made known to the other European institutions and all other relevant actors.

Adapting consultation procedures

The Commission has consulted with the social partners on proposals, particularly in the social and economic sphere, for many years. This process has become increasingly formalised and is now mandatory under the Maastricht social policy Protocol and Agreement in relation to proposals in the social dimension.

As a result of the suggestions made in the consultation process on its Communication, the Commission now proposes at cross-industry level to develop and broaden its practice of consultations on those developments in the social policy field not covered by the formal consultations under Article 3 of the Maastricht social policy Agreement - for example on Green Papers. It will involve all the representative social partners in these consultations. It will use the mechanism of liaison forums, allowing a choice of the most appropriate consultation method (meetings, electronic mail etc).

The Commission also proposes that the Advisory Committee on Social Security for Migrant Workers merge with the Advisory Committee on Freedom of Movement for Workers. Once the Amsterdam Treaty enters into force, there will be one legal base for proposals on health and safety at work and the legislative proposals in this field will fall under the process involving consultation of the social partners. However, the Advisory Committee on Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work will remain a key body for consultation on health and safety issues and the Commission will consult this body in parallel with the two-stage consultation process.

At the sectoral level, calls were made in the feedback to the initial Communication for a more effective consultation process on specific sectoral issues. Consultation has to be timely to make sure that the views of the social partners are reflected in the preparation of Community policies and proposals. The respondents urged the Commission to improve the coordination of work within its departments as far as the consultation procedures are concerned; however, the overall preference was for responsibility for the sectoral dialogue to remain with Directorate General V (DGV). Most respondents agreed with the Commission conclusion that the current structures often hinder positive developments. In particular, it was argued that the joint committees and informal working groups had become over-institutionalised or had retained operational methods which have outlived their usefulness.

The Communication argues that a more harmonised approach needs to be taken to the structures supporting the sectoral dialogue with a view to ensuring a more equitable treatment of the different sectors of activity and to enable all sectors to contribute in the most effective and substantial way to the development of the relevant Community policies.

The Commission therefore proposes to:

  • establish a new framework within which the sectoral dialogue can continue its development. This framework will be applicable on the same terms to all sectors wishing to take part in social dialogue and can be easily extended to new sectors. To this end, the Commission has decided to adopt a decision on the establishment of new sectoral dialogue committees, replacing all current sectoral dialogue structures;
  • the new committees will constitute the key forum for sectoral dialogue (consultation, joint action and negotiations) and will be set up in all sectors which submit a joint request and are sufficiently well-organised, with a meaningful European presence in line with the "established criteria of representativeness";
  • the operating procedures will be streamlined - one high-level plenary meeting each year, a restricted social partner delegation and reimbursement for a maximum of 15 participants from each side;
  • the Commission, through the Directorate General most concerned with the issues on the agenda or DGV, will provide secretarial services and chair the meetings in its role as facilitator in the absence of a joint request from the social partners that a member of one of the delegations act as chair; and
  • the Commission will ensure timely and substantial consultation on sector-specific issues with important social implications. Each sector will be firmly supported through a partnership between DGV and the other relevant DGs, including improved technical backup for the preparation of and follow-up to meetings.

In relation to consultations under Article 3 of the Agreement on Social Policy, the majority of respondents to the initial Communication considered that the two-stage consultation process initiated under the Agreement was working satisfactorily.

However, some organisations not currently consulted protested that they ought to be involved in the process. Furthermore, some organisations believed that the current six-week time limit for each consultation stage should be extended, while other respondents emphasised the need to keep to a strict time limit so as not to put the effectiveness of the Community legislative procedure at risk.

While the Commission in its Communication proposes maintaining the six-week time limit for consultations, it will, however, be prepared to adapt the deadline in particular cases depending on the nature and complexity of the subject. The Communication, in an annex, contains an updated list of the organisations responding to the three criteria for determining which should be consulted. The Commission proposes to revise this list periodically, taking into account the results of an ongoing representativeness study.

Employment partnership

Responses to the 1996 Commission Communication revealed significant criticism of the operation of the Standing Committee on Employment and its perceived lack of efficiency. This, in addition to the changing framework for discussion of employment-related issues, particularly under the Amsterdam Treaty, have led to proposals by the Commission to reform the Committee along the following lines:

  • a reformed Standing Committee on Employment will be composed of the Council, represented either by the troika of heads of state or government (ie the current, previous and next Presidencies) or the full Council of Ministers, together with the Commission and the two social partner delegations (eight members from the trade union side and eight members from the employers' side - the composition of each is set out below). Following the conclusions of the November 1997 European Council Employment Summit, the Committee should meet before the meetings between the heads of state and government at the end of each Presidency;
  • the technical meetings between the steering group of the recently-established Employment and Labour Market Committee (ELC) (EU9702105N) and the social partners, provided for through the statute of the ELC, should also be directly linked to the yearly process foreseen in the context of the annual EU Employment Guidelines. It is therefore proposed that these meetings should take place before the ELC issues its opinion on the Commission's Communication on the National Action Plans for employment in the first half of each year and, in the second half of each year, before the ELC issues its opinion on the Commission's yearly update of the Employment Guidelines; and
  • the social partner delegations to the meetings of the Standing Committee on Employment and the meetings between social partners and the ELC's steering group shall include representatives from the employers' and trade unions' side, so that the composition of each delegation covers the whole economy and includes European organisations representing either general interests or more specific interests of supervisory and professional staff and small and medium-sized businesses. The participants in the social partner delegations are to be UNICE, CEEP, the European Association of Craft and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME), EuroCommerce and the Committee of Agricultural Organisations in the EU (COPA) on the employers' side, and ETUC and the European Association of Managerial Staff (Confédération Européenne des Cadres, CEC) on the employees' side. The delegations should be organised through liaison structures.

Emphasis on joint action and negotiation

The responsibility and opportunity for the social partners to shape social policy is set to increase in the context of the Amsterdam Treaty and the European employment strategy. Once the Amsterdam Treaty enters into force, legislative proposals in the social policy field will be addressed to all Member States and be the subject of the two-stage consultation process with the possibility for the Commission to suspend the legislative process if the social partners announce their intention to open negotiations.

Within the new employment strategy, the European social partners at both cross-industry and sectoral levels have been given the opportunity to take a leading role in the necessary modernisation of the labour market. At its extraordinary meeting on employment in November 1997, the European Council made a strong appeal to the social partners to take new initiatives at all levels, in particular regarding adaptability and employability:

  • promoting the modernisation of work organisation and working patterns through negotiation at the appropriate levels, particularly in economic sectors undergoing structural change, agreements on work organisation including working time and flexible working arrangements with the aim of making enterprises productive and competitive, and achieving the required balance between flexibility and security;
  • developing the social dimension of the process of industrial restructuring, especially in the context of worker information and consultation;
  • opening up workplaces across Europe for training, work practice, traineeships and other forms of employability measures; and
  • promoting equal opportunities between women and men, both in a wider context and on specific initiatives aimed at reconciling work and family life - for example, the further development of policies on career breaks, parental leave and part-time work.

The Commission Communication emphasises that it is essential at this juncture that the social partners take up the new challenges and monitor the employment process in order to review all possible initiatives to modernise the legal, contractual and institutional framework at all levels of the dialogue. In relation to the issues raised about the representativeness of organisations sitting at the bargaining table, the Commission Communication encourages the social partners to settle these issues autonomously. Referring to the occasions mentioned above, where institutional requests for responses from the social partners were perceived to have failed to bear fruit, the Communication sends a strong message to the social partners to find a political solution to prepare the ground for future consultations and negotiations.

The Communication also emphasises that the Commission will continue to support the cross-sectoral and sectoral social dialogue. Significantly it states that there is nothing in the social policy Agreement which limits sectoral negotiations thereunder and considers that such agreements could form an important basis for achieving social policy objectives.

The challenges of accession and other avenues for social dialogue

Finally, the Communication emphasises that the Commission will support the social partners in establishing and developing links with trade union and employer organisations in the accession states, while at the same time encouraging governments of applicant countries to involve the social partners in decision-making processes. Employee and employer representative organisations from those countries will have to undergo a process of learning to be able to participate in the existing European social dialogue structures.

Support should also be given to social dialogue forums at cross-border level and within transnational undertakings.


The new Commission Communication, as well as the social dialogue mini-summit appear to send similar clear messages to the social partners: now that the opportunity to participate further in shaping the European social dimension has been opened up, it is your responsibility to rise to the challenge.

Despite significant progress over recent years, both in the intersectoral and the sectoral social dialogue, recent developments have shown that this progress continues to be fragile and new responsibilities remain to be more clearly defined and embedded in the institutional framework. The inability to progress the dialogue on certain issues such as national worker information and consultation highlights continuing differences of opinion in relation to matters which should properly be dealt with at European level. It also shows the difficulties in the negotiation process caused by the necessity to obtain agreement from member federations in all Member States.

In its Communication, the Commission refrains from addressing the question of which organisations should be involved in the negotiation process and calls upon the social partners to settle these questions autonomously. With regard to consultation, an ongoing study on the representativeness of organisations is contributing to the revision of the list of organisations to be involved in this process. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd)

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