UNICE decides against negotiations on national information and consultation rights

On 16 October 1998, a meeting of the UNICE council of presidents again rejected the opportunity to negotiate with ETUC and CEEP on national employee information and consultation rights, on the basis of the Maastricht social policy Agreement. The Commission will now propose Community legislation in this area.

Meeting on 16 October 1998, the council of presidents of the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) again rejected the European Commission's invitation to enter into negotiations on information and consultation of workers at national level. Emilio Gabaglio, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) called the decision "regrettable but not unexpected".

The idea of an EU-level framework for employee information and consultation was mooted in the 1995 medium-term Social Action Programme, and in June 1997 - in the aftermath of the Renault Vilvoorde affair (EU9703108F) - the Commission initiated a first round of consultations of the European-level social partners on the advisability of legislation in this area, on an initiative by Pádraig Flynn, the Commissioner responsible for social affairs and employment (EU9706132F). In November 1997, the Commission opened a second round of consultations on the content of possible EU legislation on this issue, on the basis of the social policy Agreement and Protocol annexed to the Maastricht Treaty (EU9711160N). The social partners had an opportunity at this stage to seek a framework agreement, thus forestalling a Directive.

While ETUC and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) indicated their willingness to negotiate on this basis, in March 1998 UNICE rejected joining such talks, reportedly as a result of objections raised by its member organisations in Germany, Greece, Portugal and the UK (EU9803192N). However, in July 1998, UNICE's new president, Georges Jacobs indicated an increasing willingness on the part of European employers to reconsider this decision (EU9807120n). At the same time a leaked Commission draft Directive on the issue was circulating in Brussels.

The leaked draft stipulated that employers with at least 20 employees were to be obliged to consult employee representatives over issues like production and marketing plans, as well as the company's economic and financial situation. In addition, employers were to be compelled to consult employee representatives in relation to changes in the employment situation, with the aim of warding off any negative consequences. Should employers fail to honour their information and consultation obligations, the legal effects of decisions taken by employers on the employment relationships of the employees affected were to be set aside. The draft Directive would have left it up to Member States to determine how employers and employees are to meet these information and consultation requirements, with a strong preference given to voluntary agreements. Nevertheless, Member States were to be obliged to set down the rules governing the negotiation, conclusion and implementation of such agreements.

It was widely assumed that the emergence of this leaked draft and the victory of the Social Democrats in Germany's October general election would make a rethink on the employer side more likely. A few days prior to the UNICE council vote, the Financial Times reported an increasing willingness to compromise among British and German employers, who had been among the most vocal opponents of social partner negotiations on the issue. The newspaper quoted Ludolf von Wartenberg, chief executive of the German BDI employers' confederation as saying that "some believe there should be a European-wide solution which gives more flexibility than present German law. We are thinking it over and trying to discuss it with the government." John Cridland, human resources director at the UK's CBI was quoted as stating that his organisation had a "genuinely open mind" ahead of the Council vote: "we believe this is not a European matter but we are looking for the best strategy which avoids prescriptive legislation."

Despite these indications, opposition in the UNICE council of presidents remained strong enough to lead to a renewed refusal to enter into negotiations on 16 October. Speaking on the day the decision was announced, Georges Jacobs said that his organisation's decision on the issue of information and consultation at the national level in no way cast doubt on UNICE's willingness to occupy the "contractual area" created by the social policy Agreement.

Commission President Jacques Santer and Commissioner Flynn immediately expressed their disappointment at UNICE's decision. Mr Flynn stated "that we have shown our willingness to defer action on this very important subject, in order to allow UNICE to review its position. As there is now no hope of negotiations under the social dialogue, the Commission will now bring forward a draft Directive on information and consultation." The draft Directive was due to be adopted by the Commission in early November.

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