From Val Duchesse to Riga: how to relaunch social dialogue? / Foundation Focus, September 2015

The new European Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker is committed to relaunching social dialogue: a first step was taken with the organisation of a high-level conference in Brussels on 5 March 2015. The aim of the conference was to discuss concrete ways to strengthen social dialogue with EU cross-industry social partners and their national affiliates. On 21 and 22 April 2015, Ministers for Employment and Social Affairs in Riga again discussed – informally – ways towards a committed, realistic social dialogue.

From 1985 onwards, at the initiative of then European Communities President, Jacques Delors, social dialogue took on a more autonomous and bipartite form in the preparatory phase of the Single Market. This fundamental change dates from 31 January 1985, when EU-level social partners met at the château of Val Duchesse in Brussels. It was Delors’ firm conviction that the Single Market programme had to be matched by a social dimension to the European Community; the cornerstone of this Social Europe would be European social dialogue. Thirty years later, many academic experts and EU actors now argue that it could be made more efficient and effective.

Towards more autonomy

The principle of ‘autonomy of the social partners’ is embedded in most of the legal systems of the EU and has been recognised as one of the general principles of EU law. However, recent Eurofound research has shown that one impact of the crisis on industrial relations has been an increased trend towards unilateral decision-making by governments at the expense of social partners’ autonomy, especially in the public sector (Eurofound, 2013a). EU social partners stress the importance of their collective bargaining autonomy; trade union representatives – in particular – voice their concern about what they perceive as interference by EU institutions in national-level wage determination and wage policy. Society works better if citizens feel that decisions concerning them are taken at the most appropriate level – in line with the principle of subsidiarity. When social partners arrive at common solutions, these often have a better chance of succeeding, because they have more support and are often more realistic. A firmer application of the principle of subsidiarity seems to be the right way to strengthen social dialogue.

Greater representativeness and legitimacy

Under European social dialogue, management and labour have developed into co-legislators in the social policy field; the representativeness checks that the European Commission carries out are very important in ensuring the legitimacy of the actors in this process. In 2006, Eurofound was mandated by the Commission to assess the representativeness of the European social partners; since then, it has published 38 sectoral studies (and one cross-industry study) in order to underpin the legitimacy of that dialogue. These studies map the relevant EU social partners that should be consulted by the Commission.

Need for better linkages

Within European social dialogue, the number and scope of policy proposals depend on whether the European Commission considers these initiatives a priority for the EU. The EU’s progress in this field is – in turn – contingent on the degree of support from other EU institutions and Member States, and on the social partners themselves. This is why one commentator famously interpreted European social dialogue as an industrial relations process characterised as ‘bargaining in the shadow of the law’ (Bercusson, 1995). However, the shadow of the law seems to have faded over the past decade – as has the incentive of both sides of industry to engage in effective dialogue.

Furthermore, a crucial dimension of social dialogue is the relationship between European-level social partners and their national affiliates: the future of social dialogue at EU level depends on the ability of social partners to increase the flow of information and degree of cooperation between these two. If European social dialogue is to operate fully, the EU and its Member States must support both the dialogue itself and national players in the field of industrial relations.

Rebuilding mutual trust

Social dialogue is based on discussion and mutual learning. The Val Duchesse process created a dynamic by building up both a relationship of trust between the actors (based on their having better information about each other’s capabilities and intentions) and a commitment to engage in negotiations at EU level. Past interviews with actors with interests at the EU level have shown that ‘learning’ is a key factor in the process. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, it may be time to revisit the spirit of Val Duchesse and rebuild that relationship of trust between the two sides of industry.

Closer involvement

At EU level, the involvement of the social partners in the European Semester process has improved at the different junctures. The European social partners are now consulted prior to the publication of the Annual Growth Survey (AGS) and the 2015 AGS proposes to further engage with the social partners beforehand and to discuss and receive feedback on emerging trends or topical country-specific issues. Since this year, the country reports are published three months earlier in order to allow for a better discussion of the reports with the social partners and other stakeholders at national level. The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) has discussed the involvement of the social partners and endorsed the Employment Committee (EMCO) guidelines, which could be  followed by the Social Protection Committee (SPC) as well. In a move initiated under the Italian Presidency, the European social partners now participate directly in discussions at the informal meetings of the EU ministers for Employment and Social Affairs. The European social partners have welcomed this recent practice and the dialogue with EMCO and SPC as advisory policy committees for EPSCO.

Another innovation within the Semester process is the creation of European Semester Officers – economic policy experts based in the European Commission’s national representation offices in the 28 Member States. Their role is to explain the European Semester and the new economic governance to the various stakeholders, including the social partners, at national level. However, there also seems to be a general consensus among the actors (EU institutions and European social partners) that despite recent progress an even closer involvement of the social partners both in the European and national strands of the European Semester is needed.

Social market economy

The European social model – of which social dialogue is a central pillar – has been challenged over the course of the crisis. Recent attempts to strengthen the social dimension of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) have addressed some initial design weaknesses to make it fairer, more competitive and capable of promoting growth. On the 30th anniversary of the Val Duchesse conference, both Vice-President of the European Commission Valdis Dombrovskis and Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Thyssen reiterated that social dialogue was a prerequisite for a social market economy and crucial to both competitiveness and fairness. The genuine and committed involvement of the social partners is needed for a fresh start to that dialogue.

Christian Welz


Full publication with references available here

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