The future of the social dialogue at Community level

The European Commission is currently considering the future development of the social dialogue, in the light of new challenges faced by the EU. Initial indications from the responses generated by its consultation document highlight the desire of European social partner organisations to improve and extend the dialogue process

On 18 September 1996, the European Commission adopted a Communication Concerning the Development of the Social Dialogue Process at Community Level (COM(96) 448 final). Launching the Communication, the commissioner responsible for social affairs, Padraig Flynn, said that the time had come to reform and adapt the social dialogue in view of the new challenges facing the European Union in years to come. The Commission was" aiming at a rationalisation of structures and an optimal allocation of the resources available".

The initiative was prompted by a number of significant events affecting the social dialogue process, most importantly the introduction of the new consultation and negotiation mechanisms under the Agreement on Social Policy attached to the Treaty on European Union. At the same time, the employment and labour market policy debate became much more focused with the White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness and Employment, the Essen recommendations, and the Confidence Pact for Employment in Europe, which placed employment at the centre of the social dialogue process at "interprofessional" (cross-industry) and sectoral level.

The different levels of the social dialogue

The social dialogue process currently takes place at a number of different levels, and in a variety of different forums.

The Val Duchesse social dialogue

Initiated in 1985, the Val Duchesse social dialogue process aimed to involve the social partners - European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and theEuropean Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation (CEEP) - in the internal market process. With the introduction of Article 118B in the Single European Act, the promotion of the social dialogue process became one of the Commission's official tasks. In October 1991, UNICE, ETUC and CEEP adopted a joint agreement which called for mandatory consultation of the social partners on Commission proposals in the area of social affairs, and an option for negotiations between the social partners to lead to framework agreements. This agreement became enshrined in the Agreement on Social Policy annexed to the Treaty on European Union. In October 1992 the ETUC, CEEP and UNICE formed a new Social Dialogue Committee which is consulted on social, macroeconomic, employment, vocational training and other policies of interest to the social partners. Between 1985 and 1995, the Val Duchesse process generated 21 joint opinions and declarations, two key agreements and seven high-level summits.

In its Communication, the Commission underlines what it perceives to be the invaluable contribution of the Val Duchesse process to the development of the economic, employment and social policy debates at European level, and states that it will continue to give full support to this dialogue. In recent years, a number of organisations have requested participation in this process, and the Commission therefore calls upon the social partners to "reinforce the social dialogue by ensuring the adequate representation of all appropriate interests".

Interprofessional advisory committees

These incorporate the Consultative Committee of the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Social Fund Committee, the Advisory Committee on Social Security for Migrant Workers, the Advisory Committee on Freedom of Movement for Workers, the Advisory Committee on Vocational Training, the Advisory Committee on Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work, and the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women. In general, these committees are made up of representatives of national employer and trade union organisations as well as governments. They have the task of advising and assisting the Commission in the implementation of specific social policies.

The Commission Communication highlights what are perceived to be the problems in the current operation of these Committees. These are the frequent lack of timely consultation on proposals, and the lack of coordination between different Committees and other consultation processes. The Communication therefore proposes an examination of the current committee structure, and the merger of the advisory committee on social security for migrant workers and the advisory committee on the freedom of movement of workers. It also calls for a review of the status of European social partners on the committees and encourages further suggestions for the review of these structures.

The sectoral social dialogue

This takes place in:

  • sectoral joint committees (JCs);
  • informal working parties (IWPs); and
  • non-structured discussion groups.

There are currently 10 sectoral joint committees, 10 informal working parties, and six non-structured discussion groups. The nature and results of this dialogue vary from sector to sector, and range from informal discussions on EU developments affecting the sector to the formulation of joint opinions, the initiation of studies and the participation in EU-funded vocational training programmes. Since 1993, members of JCs and IWPs have been consulted on social policy initiatives.

The consultation document underlines the important role played by the sectoral social dialogue in informing the Commission about the views of the social partners on developments and proposals, but argues that its potential is currently not fully exploited, as the Commission is not normally obliged to hold consultations at this level during the stage preceding the formal adoption of a text (with the exception of social policy measures brought under Article 3 of the Agreement on Social Policy). There is also currently no requirement to consult on issues other than those of a social policy nature, which provides for a rather artificial distinction between social and economic policy concerns. The Commission sees the need to address what it regards as the overinstitutionalised nature of the social dialogue process in some sectors and the heavy financial and administrative burden placed on the Commission as a result of the high number of meetings per year.

The Commission therefore argues that more substance could be given to the dialogue at this level by focusing it on specific issues, and asks for the social partners' views on how to develop a "more effective and relevant sectoral social dialogue". The Commission also seeks to strengthen cooperation and coordination within its own services concerning consultation procedures. It calls for responses to proposals to move responsibility for the sectoral social dialogue from DGV to the relevant sectoral Directorates-General and asks for views on the organisation and responsibilities of the sectoral social dialogue. It announces the launch, in 1996, of a study on the representativeness of social partner organisations in the sector.

In addition, the Commission proposes to reduce the number of members of joint committees to improve efficiency, and views are sought on how the sectoral social dialogue can work more effectively with a view to the efficient allocation of resources, and on how the intersectoral coordination can be improved in order to improve the communication of its results.

The Standing Committee on Employment

The Standing Committee on Employment (SCE) was created by Council decision in 1970 with the aim of ensuring continuous consultation between the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the two sides of industry to facilitate cooperation on employment policies. Meetings are generally held once during every six-month Presidency period.

The Communication outlines what is perceived to be a lack of real consultation in the SCE. It argues that the reform of the SCE should be linked to the implementation of the decision on a stable structure for employment policy as decided in the European Council of Madrid, and a workplan should be established, setting its work in a long-term context. The Commission argues that the current composition of the Committee should be modified and rationalised, and the various social partner organisations should express their views through liaison committees. It raises the question whether the resolutions of SCE meetings should be given a higher profile.

The social dialogue under the Agreement on Social Policy

Article 3 and 4 of the Maastricht Agreement on Social Policy extend the provisions of Article 118B considerably by imposing an obligation to consult management and labour before presenting a proposal in the social policy field in a two-stage consultation process. In the first stage the Commission informs the social partners of its intention to act on a particular subject and asks their views on the "possible direction of Community action" (Art. 3.2). These views can be delivered individually or jointly. If, after the first stage, the Commission considers action advisable, it has to consult with the social partners on the content of the envisaged proposal. The social partners have to respond with an opinion or recommendation. At this stage the social partners can decide to negotiate an agreement on the issue, which can either be implemented in accordance with national structures or through the adoption of a Council decision. The latter process led to the adoption of the Directive on the social partners' framework agreement on parental leave in 1996.

The Agreement on Social Policy did not specify which social partner organisations were to be consulted in this process. A number of criteria were laid out in the Communication relating to the implementation of the Agreement which cover other organisations such as UEAPME (European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), CEC (Confédération Européenne des Cadres, or European Association of Managerial Staff) and a number of sectoral employers' organisations. The Commission states that it will keep under review the list of organisations to be consulted and asks whether the criteria for establishing the representativeness of organisations should be adapted. It commits itself to organising regular meetings between interested social partner organisations for the exchange of views.

The Commission acknowledges in the document that organisations often find it difficult to respond to proposals in the time provided and therefore proposes an extension to the time period for first-stage consultations.

After its first few years of operation, the new negotiation procedure has attracted a number of criticisms: the European Parliament sought to have a role in the decision-making process; the Council accepted that it could not modify agreements, but expressed concern at some elements of the content which it perceived to be a matter for the member states; and a number of social partner organisations criticised their lack of involvement in the negotiations. UEAPME, for example, has referred the question of the applicability of the parental leave agreement to its members to the European Court of Justice. The Commission is therefore seeking the views of the social partner organisations on their experience of the implementation of the Agreement, and on how the acceptability of negotiated agreements could be reinforced.

The Communication also touches on broader issues of the development of the social dialogue, such as the focusing of the social dialogue process on employment and the improvement of the dissemination of its results. It therefore seeks the social partners' views on what practical assistance is required to create an effective information policy on the social dialogue.

Views from the social partners

This feature concentrates on the views of two of the organisations currently represented in the interprofessional social dialogue process - ETUC and CEEP) - as well as the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC), which adopted its opinion on the Commission Communication at its January plenary session. The views of UNICE will be reported once its position has been ratified on 25 February 1997. The positions of the sectoral social partners will also be reported.

ECOSOC, ETUC and CEEP all welcome the Commission's initiative and stress the important contribution made in the past by the social dialogue at all levels. In its response to the Communication, ETUC (which issued its response on 29 January 1997) is, nevertheless, critical of what it perceives to be the lack of clarity on the Commission's part as to: the difference between autonomous bipartite relationships among the social partners and tripartite institutions; and the roles of information, consultation and negotiation. It points to what is sees to be a fundamental contradiction between the Commission's declared support for the social dialogue and the weakened resources devoted to it. It accuses the Commission of adopting an approach unduly restricted to administrative and financial aspects, rather than developing a real vision for the social dialogue, particularly at the sectoral level.

It is the strengthening of the latter and the extension of its scope which ETUC regards as being fundamental to the search for a new balance between legislation and contractual agreements. In order to support the social dialogue, ETUC calls for the establishment of an independent secretariat, run by the social partners, which would be responsible for document preparation, information and awareness raising.

Involvement and representativeness

One of the issues which concerns members of ECOSOC is the whether the social dialogue should be widened to include other organisations. It is the Committee's view that for the talks to have any value, as many representatives of interest groups active in the economic and social field as possible should be involved. The Committee believes that in order to be "representative", an organisation should :

  • have members in at least three-quarters of the EU member states (and seek to be represented in others);
  • have a mandate from its member organisations to negotiate at European level;
  • have members able to negotiate at member state level;
  • be able to implement any instruments concluded at EU level; and
  • be made up of organisations which are considered as representative in their member state.

In its opinion on the Communication - published in February 1997 - CEEP argues that in order for the social dialogue at European level to be successful, the involvement of the social partners from every level is required. It sees the Community structural funds as having an important part to play in supporting these activities. The participation of all legitimate interests in the social dialogue is supported by CEEP, but these must be represented by the larger professional organisations which "have the capacity to produce a balanced summary of these interests".

Regarding the representativeness criteria to be used to qualify organisations to take part in the social dialogue process, CEEP supports inclusion of the following criteria:

  • organisations should have the will to engage in a constructive dialogue; and
  • they should be capable of including sectoral and interprofessional issues in the general social debate.

CEEP acknowledges the importance of considering the interests of SMEs in the debate, but argues that social economy undertakings (such as cooperatives and mutual societies) deserve the same attention. It does not support the involvement of further actors in the interprofessional dialogue, but argues that the existing social partner organisations have to prove their ability to represent all interests.

Focusing the social dialogue process

While ETUC and CEEP agree that the topic of employment should be at the heart of the social dialogue at all levels, this should not be to the exclusion of other issues. They argue that all Commission DGs should consider policy and legislative proposals in the light of their impact on employment. Both organisations support the removal of what they see as the artificial distinction between social, economic and industrial policy which is reinforced by the lack of coordination between the different DGs. There is also a consensus on the importance of the inclusion of the Agreement on Social Policy into the Treaty in order to improve the level of coordination of labour market and social policies between the member states. In addition, ETUC calls for the inclusion of an "employment chapter" in the Treaty (as suggested by December 1996's Irish draft Treaty revision), but argues that rights of association, negotiation and action must be included which should equally apply at cross-border level. ETUC also supports the idea of complementary sectoral negotiations which can lead to binding decisions, either where they can improve or adapt confederal agreements to the situation in particular sectors, or where sectors are explicitly excluded from a Directive.

The importance of the sectoral social dialogue

ETUC repeatedly underlines the importance of the extension and improved resourcing of the sectoral dimension of the social dialogue (JCs and IWPs in particular), since it is at this level that the effects of integration and Economic and Monetary Union are going to be most keenly felt and where it is most important to avoid negative effects and exploit opportunities for job creation. However, other levels are also seen as warranting further attention in the social dialogue process. It is argued that branch and company negotiations should be extended to the European level, particularly in those sectors and businesses which are competing in the European area. Cross-border and regional dimensions should likewise be given more importance in context of economic integration and territorial pacts.

CEEP supports the focusing of the sectoral social dialogue on strategic issues and sectors, and argues that better links should be made to the interprofessional dialogue. Both organisations see the increased involvement of the sectoral DGs as being desirable, however, this should not replace DGV's coordinating function.

The interprofessional social dialogue and the work of the advisory committees

In its response, ETUC argues that the interprofessional social dialogue is still fragile and should therefore be supported and boosted by the Commission through its role in initiating legislative proposals. The guiding role of the Social Dialogue Committee should be strengthened and supported by the ad hoc working groups, and new subjects should be opened up for social dialogue.

Rather than any radical reform, ETUC calls for more resources to be committed to the advisory committees to enable the provision of more timely and high-quality information. In addition, ETUC makes a case for its own involvement alongside national representatives and argues that observers from other EEA countries should be able to take part in meetings.

CEEP, on the other hand, considers a radical reorganisation of the interprofessional advisory committees to be desirable. The possibility should be considered they could be replaced by a social dialogue mechanism involving interprofessional and sectoral aspects. If the committees are to be maintained, representatives should be chosen autonomously, rather than being appointed on the basis of government recommendations.

The role of the Standing Committee on Employment

Both ETUC and CEEP agree with the need to reform the SCE, but point out that this a tripartite information and consultation body and not a social dialogue organisation. ETUC argues that this should wait until an employment chapter has been included in Treaty, in order to be able to define responsibilities clearly. It warns that the role of the SCE should not be confused with that of the new Employment and Labour Market Committee which, ETUC argues, merely formalises previously existing structures.

The application of the Agreement on Social Policy

CEEP argues that the experience of negotiating the framework agreement on parental leave demonstrates that the social partners are capable of playing an effective part in the formulation of a European "social framework". It supports the Commission's suggestion of extending the six-week deadline for first stage consultations under the Agreement on Social Policy, as this would allow for better consultation with national members. ETUC argues that it is too early to evaluate the experience with the negotiation process, but stresses that a clear distinction has to be made between the different stages of information, consultation and negotiation, underlining the independent nature of negotiations between the social partners.

Next steps

The Commission is currently collating responses from a wide range of social partner organisations, and will present a report for discussion at a meeting under the Dutch presidency in The Hague on 28-29 April 1997. The consultation process aims to lead to the formulation of a White Paper on the development of the social dialogue process later this year.

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