EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Competences of the European Union

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The Member States confer on the European Union competences or powers and these are laid down in the Treaties. Article 5 (1) TEU stipulates: ‘The limits of Union competences are governed by the principle of conferral. The use of Union competences is governed by the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.’

The Union, therefore, is only competent to act within the scope of the powers allocated to it. Any measures adopted by the EU institutions must be founded on a legal basis in the Treaty.

However, these competences or powers have been greatly extended – as far as the subject matter with which the Community was concerned – by the Single European Act (SEA) and the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice. The scope of competences has been expanded by a doctrine of the implied powers, developed by the European Court of Justice, which held that the Union had powers not only expressly laid down in the Treaty but also to be implied from express provisions. An example is where the Unioncan enter international commitments, whenever it has the power to attain an objective within the Union. Another extension of competences comes in via Article 352 (1) TFEU, which states: ‘If action by the Union should prove necessary, within the framework of the policies defined in the Treaties, to attain one of the objectives set out in the Treaties, and the Treaties have not provided the necessary powers, the Council, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, shall adopt the appropriate measures.’

On the other hand, expansion of the competences of the Union, particularly in the field of employment and industrial relations, is constrained by the expressed limitations on its powers, the continuing influence of internal market considerations and the need for political consent. Moreover, according to Article 5 (3) TEU , ‘in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.’

The competences of the Union in the sphere of employment and industrial relations, therefore, define the potential scope for Europeanisation of employment and industrial relations. The tension between limited competences and pressure to expand the social objectives and action of the Union is a recurring theme in the road towards Europeanisation of employment and industrial relations.

See also: freedom of association; opt-out; pay; social competences; social objectives; subsidiarity; Treaties of Rome; Treaty of Amsterdam; Treaty of Maastricht; Treaty of Nice; treaty provisions.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
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