EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life


Enlargement refers to the process of accession to the European Union of new Member States as provided for in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. Conditions of admission and any transition periods have to be agreed between the Member States and the applicant state.

Enlargement has had an impact on employment and industrial relations in the EU. The six founding nations – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – which established the European Economic Community under the Treaty of Rome in 1957, shared a common West European continental tradition of employment and industrial relations.

Denmark, Ireland and the UK, which joined in 1973, had different experiences based on Anglo-Saxon and Nordic traditions. Their accession coincided with a decisive change in the EU’s social policy with the adoption of the Social Action Programme in 1974.

The enlargement to include Greece in 1981 and Portugal and Spain in 1986 incorporated into the EU three countries that had only recently emerged from dictatorship regimes. They brought with them new constitutional experiences showing a clear sensitivity towards fundamental social rights, evident in the 1989 Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers.

The accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995 brought into the Union three countries with relatively high levels of membership of trade unions, traditions of social partnership and active labour market policies, and the Treaty of Amsterdam of 1997 included a new title on employment.

Ten countries – the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – joined the Union on 1 May 2004. They were followed by Bulgaria and Romania, which joined on 1 January 2007.

The accession of Bulgaria and Romania marked the latest stage of a development which has its roots in the collapse of communism, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This offered an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to extend European integration into central and Eastern Europe. The major challenges for the European Union in terms of employment and industrial relations include raising the new Member States’ living standards and promoting social dialogue in countries with little tradition of free collective bargaining and cooperation between the social partners.

In terms of future Member States, Croatia will accede to the EU on 1 July 2013 to become its 28th Member State, after having concluded accession negotiations in 2011.

There are also five candidate countries: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which was granted candidate status in December 2005; Iceland, which opened accession negotiations in June 2010; Montenegro, which opened accession negotiations in June 2012; Serbia, which was granted candidate status in March 2012; and Turkey, where accession negotiations started in 2005. However, until Turkey agrees to apply the Additional Protocol of the Ankara Association Agreement to Cyprus, eight negotiation chapters will not be opened and no chapter will be provisionally closed.

The expansion and future further expansion of the EU brings a range of new challenges, not least in terms of labour migration. This should be seen not just from the perspective of the ‘old’ Member States who may have concerns about immigration, but also from the point of view of the labour shortages created in the new Member States by large-scale emigration, although the recent economic crisis has had an impact on migration patterns.

Challenges are also likely to arise with regard to industrial relations in the new Member States. Issues here include the fact that the sectoral level of industrial relations is largely weak and so collective bargaining is mainly carried out at the company level. In terms of social dialogue and collective bargaining in general, the newer Member States experience lower collective bargaining coverage and trade union density and a generally less developed system of social dialogue, due to a lack of robust actors and processes, and relatively little experience of these actors.

Further, wages are lower in the new Member States than in the older EU Member States, and working time tends to be longer.

See also: Acquis communautaire; Immigration; Social acquis.

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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