The term ‘autonomous agreement’ refers to an agreement between the European social partners that is largely the outcome of negotiations between representative social partner organisations rather than being the result of a political decision-making process conducted exclusively within the framework of the official EU institutions (the European Commission, Council of the European Union and European Parliament). The process for producing and implementing such agreements is set out in EU law (Articles 154 and 155 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)). The main feature of autonomous agreements is that they are implemented not by EU law but ‘in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States’ (Article 155(2) of the TFEU).
Background and status
Until 2006, these autonomous agreements were referred to as ‘voluntary agreements’. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has always been clear that such agreements are voluntary only in the sense that entering into negotiations is voluntary, whereas ‘the implementation of the autonomous agreement … is binding for all member organisations of the signatory parties’. The social partners have established an EU-level framework whereby their affiliated organisations are obliged to implement autonomous agreements in accordance with the national procedures and practices specific to management and labour in the Member States.
Autonomous agreements concluded
To date, six autonomous agreements have been concluded at cross-industry level. Three autonomous agreements have been made at sectoral level and one multisectoral autonomous agreement has been concluded.
|Subject of the agreement||Level||Year|
|Licence for drivers carrying out a cross-border interoperability service||Sectoral||2004|
|Worker health protection through the good handling and use of crystalline silica and products containing it||Multisectoral||2006|
|Harassment and violence at work||Cross-industry||2007|
|Implementation of European hairdressing certificates||Sectoral||2009|
|Inclusive labour markets||Cross-industry||2010|
|Minimum requirements for standard player contracts in the professional football sector in the European Union and in the rest of the UEFA territory||Sectoral||2012|
|Active ageing and an intergenerational approach||Cross-industry||2017|
Agreements concluded with the social partners can be found in the European Commission’s social dialogue texts database, which contains all EU social partner texts (a total of 1,145 in May 2021).
The first cross-industry agreements addressed telework and work-related stress and were implemented in 2002 and 2004, respectively. In 2005, the Commission launched a consultation of the social partners concerning violence in the workplace, including bullying and its effects on health and safety at work. The consultation referred to the joint work programme for 2003–2005, in which the social partners had announced that they would discuss the possibility of negotiating a voluntary agreement in this area. The social partners concluded an agreement on harassment and violence at work in April 2007.
In their 2009–2010 work programme, the social partners declared their intention to negotiate and implement an autonomous framework agreement on the better integration of disadvantaged groups into the labour market. The autonomous agreement on inclusive labour markets was signed in 2010, setting out the main obstacles to the development of an inclusive labour market, committing to undertake actions to overcome these obstacles, and urging public employment services and other actors to develop a range of initiatives.
In June 2016, a statement on a ‘new start for social dialogue’ was signed by representatives of the Commission, the EU social partners and the Council, in which cross-industry social partners stated that they would:
continue to involve their respective members in joint and separate capacity building actions and projects aimed at … ensuring implementation of their autonomous framework agreements in all Member States (in line with Art. 155.2 TFEU). The type of support to be provided to implement these agreements could take different forms. This may include ad-hoc EU social partners’ actions to ensure implementation in the Member States; capacity building activities; exchange of good practices among national social partners.
- Statement of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the European Commission and the European social partners: A new start for social dialogue
In September 2016, the European Commission carried out a study on the implementation of the autonomous framework agreement on harassment and violence at work, which highlighted some loopholes in the implementation of autonomous agreements. It states that ‘a concern remains about social partners’ ability to implement such agreements in some countries’.
- European Commission: Study on the implementation of the autonomous framework agreement on harassment and violence at work
On 8 March 2017, the cross-industry European social partners signed a framework agreement on active ageing and an intergenerational approach. The agreement was featured in the European social partners’ 2015–2017 work programme. It sets out measures to encourage the social partners to address the ageing workforce and the transfer of skills at the different levels of collective bargaining. Unlike previous agreements, the newer accord contains a provision to ensure that its implementation is followed up. The European social partners will be obliged to intervene jointly with their members at national level to ensure that the agreement is implemented if failure to do so is detected four years after the document’s signing.
On 22 June 2020, the cross-industry European social partners signed an autonomous framework agreement on digitalisation covering four major topics: digital skills and securing employment; modalities of connecting and disconnecting; artificial intelligence and guaranteeing the ‘human in control’ principle; and surveillance and respect for human dignity. The aim is to address these topics through
a joint dynamic circular process, which takes into account the different roles and responsibilities of the different actors and can be tailored to different national, sectoral and/or enterprise situations, industrial relations systems, jobs and different digital technologies/tools.
The agreement invites the social partners to address issues relating to connecting and disconnecting, without, however, establishing a right to disconnect.
- ETUC and others: Framework agreement on active ageing and an inter-generational approach
- ETUC and others: Framework agreement on digitalisation (PDF)
Sectoral and multisectoral autonomous agreements
Three autonomous agreements have also been concluded at sectoral level (covering train drivers, hairdressers and professional footballers) and one has been concluded at multisectoral level: the 2006 agreement on the protection of workers’ health through the good handling and use of crystalline silica and products containing it.
Related dictionary terms
Collective agreements as a mechanism for enforcement of EU law; European social dialogue; European social model; European social partners; framework agreements; multi-sector agreement; soft law; voluntary agreement