Organisations of employers at national level undertook, in the aftermath of the Second World War, to establish European-level organisations in the form of employer federations or confederations. This began in 1949 with the establishment of the Conseil des Fédérations Industrielles d’Europe (CIFE), and, within this organisational framework, the Union des industries des pays de la Communauté européenne. The latter was composed of the national industrial federations from the six Member States of the European Coal and Steel Community. This body became the Union des industries de la communauté européenne (UNICE) in March 1958.
The six founding Member States of the European Community were represented in UNICE by the eight founder-member employer confederations or employer peak organisations from Belgium (FIB), France (CNPF), Germany (BDI and BDA), Italy (Confindustria), Luxembourg (FEDIL) and the Netherlands (VNO and FKPCWV). The Federation of Greek Industries was accepted as an associate member. By 2003, UNICE had grown to 34 members and five observers from 27 countries, including the EU countries, the EEA countries and some central and eastern European countries. Today, EU-level employer organisations are highly centralised in the Union of Industrial and Employer Confederations of Europe (UNICE), which brings together almost all the main national intersectoral confederations of private sector employers and business in the EU Member States.
The issue of UNICE’s representativeness in terms of small and medium enterprises was raised by the Union Européenne de l’Artisant et des Petits et Moyennes Entreprises/European Union of Handicraft and Small and Medium Enterprises (UEAPME) before the European Court of First Instance (CFI), as it was excluded from the social dialogue negotiations which concluded the Parental Leave Agreement. The complaint was dismissed by the CFI on 17 June 1998, among other reasons, on the grounds that the social partner representing employers which negotiated the Parental Leave Agreement, UNICE, was sufficiently representative of SMEs (Union Européenne de l’Artisanat et des Petites et Moyennes Entreprises (UEAPME) v. Council of the European Union, Case T-135/96  ECR II-2335). The dispute was eventually settled by a cooperation agreement between UNICE and UEAPME, dated 12 November 1998. This paved the way for UEAPME to be a participant in the European social dialogue alongside UNICE.
Public sector employer organisations are represented by the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP). These employer organisations engage with ETUC in social dialogue and negotiations at EU level.
However, sectoral organisation is lacking on the employer side. While there are many organisations representing business at EU level, their primary function is trade promotion or lobbying for business interests. They do not engage with their equivalent organisations, the European industry federations affiliated to the ETUC. The European Commission has sought to promote such engagement by establishing sectoral social dialogue committees.
Again, at national level, the contrast with the EU level is marked. On the one hand, there is in most Member States, as at EU level, a single organisation usually representing private sector employers. Although there are exceptions (as in Germany), the tendency is towards representation both of the private sector’s business and trade interests and of their interests as employers. However, in contrast to EU level, at national level, sectoral employer organisations play a key role in collective bargaining with trade unions in most EU Member States: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden. The UK, Ireland, Malta, most central and eastern European countries and Luxembourg are the exceptions, where bargaining is concentrated at company level.
Despite these differences, the EU-level interaction of employer and trade union organisations at intersectoral level, and, though to a much lesser extent, at sectoral level, reflects a pattern at the national level evident in many Member States.