European social dialogue

The European social partners use a very narrow definition of social dialogue, reserving the notion of social dialogue for their bipartite, autonomous work. Whenever European public authorities are involved, the social partners prefer to speak of tripartite concertation.

Forms of EU social dialogue

Bipartite: this is the autonomous dialogue between employers' organisations and workers' organisations and it refers to the discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions involving the two sides of industry. Bipartite social dialogue derives from the work programmes adopted by the EU social partners. 

Tripartite: the European tripartite social dialogue involves the European institutions (Commission, and where appropriate, Council and European Council), as well as the social partners.

The European Commission views social dialogue as encompassing both the bipartite and the tripartite processes between the European social partners themselves and between the two sides of industry and the European Commission. These processes are rooted in Articles 154 and 155 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and may lead to legally or contractually binding agreements (see below). At European level, social dialogue takes two main forms: a bipartite dialogue between the European employers and trade union organisations, and a tripartite dialogue involving interaction between the social partners and the public authorities.

The term 'social dialogue' is mentioned in primary EU law in the TFEU. Article 152 TFEU states: ‘The Union recognises and promotes the role of the social partners at its level, taking into account the diversity of national systems. It shall facilitate dialogue between the social partners, respecting their autonomy.’

Articles 154 and 155 TFEU provide a procedure that combines the consultation of the social partners by the Commission with the option to leave social regulation to bipartite agreement between management and labour organised at European level. Article 154(2) states that ‘before submitting proposals in the social policy field, the Commission shall consult management and labour on the possible direction of Union action.’ Article 154(3) states that ‘if, after such consultation, the Commission considers Union action advisable, it shall consult management and labour on the content of the envisaged proposal. Management and labour shall forward to the Commission an opinion or, where appropriate, a recommendation.’ 

The forms and content of the responses of the social partners in this consultation phase may be very different. The Commission indicates that the ‘formal consultation of the social partners provided for in Article 154(3) TFEU may lead to the adoption of opinions, recommendations or agreement-based relations (including agreements) within the social partners’ sphere of competence’.

If the social partners ask to deal with the issue by bipartite social dialogue, known as the 'autonomous' route, the Commission will suspend its legislative initiative. An autonomous agreement is guided by the principle of subsidiarity, empowering national affiliates with the task of implementing such an agreement in line with national procedures and practices.

Alternatively, Article 155(2) TFEU allows social partners to request that the Commission take a proposal to the Council, which leads in practice to implementation by Council directive, including all legal consequences specific to the instrument of a directive. However, should the social partners fail to reach an agreement, a fallback position exists which allows the Commission to address the issue via the normal legislative procedure, as was the case with the European Works Council Directive in 1994.

Implementation of agreements

The implementation of agreements resulting from European social dialogue is laid down in Article 155(2) TFEU:

Agreements concluded at Community level shall be implemented either in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States or, in matters covered by Article 153 (i.e. in social matters for which the EU has regulatory competence), at the joint request of the signatory parties, by a Council decision on a proposal from the Commission. The European Parliament shall be informed.

The European social partners who signed the agreement will ask the Commission to propose to the Council implementation of the agreement. The Commission provides an explanatory memorandum on any proposal presented to the Council, giving its comments and assessment of the agreement concluded by the social partners. On this basis, the Council – by qualified majority voting, or by unanimity, according to its legislative competence provided in Article 153 TFEU – will decide to incorporate the collective agreement into a Council Directive. The Council can decide not to implement the agreement by directive, but is unable to change the content of the agreement.

If the collective agreement is implemented by Council Directive, its effects will be extended erga omnes and the Member States will have to ensure the implementation of the directive. As for all directives, including those implementing European collective agreements, a Member State may opt to ensure implementation by recourse to collective agreement(s) at national level, taking into account that the Member State ultimately retains responsibility for guaranteeing the objectives established by the directive (Article 153 paragraph 3 TFEU).

Key dates in the development of European social dialogue


First meetings of the social partners at Val Duchesse (Belgium) at the invitation of Commission President Jacques Delors


First formal recognition of European social dialogue by insertion into the EC Treaty by the Single European Act 1986 of a new Article 118B EC


Social partner agreement on the basic principles of social dialogue (taken up by the Treaty of Maastricht)


The Maastricht Treaty of the European Union included a protocol incorporating an Agreement on Social Policy, the result of negotiations between the European social partners. The agreement, adopted by all 11 Member States with the exception of the United Kingdom, outlined the procedure for European social dialogue.


Adoption of Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave concluded by UNICE, CEEP and ETUC


The signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam in June 1997 resulted in the Agreement on Social Policy being incorporated into a revised Social Chapter of the EC Treaty

Adoption of Council Directive 97/81/EC of 15 December 1997 concerning the framework agreement on part-time work concluded by UNICECEEP and ETUC


Adoption of Council Directive 1999/70/EC of 28 June 1999 concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded by ETUC, UNICE and CEEP


European social partners’ declaration on social dialogue (December 2001) defined the conceptual differences between tripartite concertation, consultation and social dialogue


The framework agreement on telework was signed by the European social partners


The framework agreement on work-related stress was signed by the European social partners


The framework agreement on harassment and violence at work was signed by the European social partners 


Coming into force of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) in December 2009, which elaborates on the European social dialogue in articles 152, 154 and 155 TFEU


The framework agreement on inclusive labour markets was signed by the European social partners 


The Commission initiated a 'New start for social dialogue' and a statement on this was signed by the EU social partners, the Commission and the Council Presidency in 2016

Levels of EU social dialogue

  • Cross-sector/industry: brings together both sides of industry at EU level to discuss issues relating to the whole economy and the labour market in general.
  • Sectoral: both sides of industry discuss on sector-specific issues.
  • Company level: the main forums are European Works Councils (EWCs) based on an EU Directive adopted in 1997 (and revised in 2009) with the main aim of providing employees with information and consultation on transnational matters.  
  • European Framework Agreements: EFAs have a regional (European) scope of application and are signed by European industry federations (EIFs), European Works Councils (EWCs) and/or national unions and central management.

Cross-sector social dialogue

According to the Commission’s definition, cross-sector covers the whole economy and labour market and its purpose is 'to promote dialogue between trade unions and employers’ organisations in key areas common to all fields of employment and social affairs’. The existence of the social dialogue committee is central to this process. Founded in 1992, this committee brings together employee representatives (ETUC, Eurocadres and the European Federation of Executives and Managerial Staff) and employer bodies (BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME and CEEP).  It meets 3-4 times a year to discuss employer/worker views on employment and social topics, adopt texts negotiated by both parties and plan future initiatives. The social partners have produced a number of notable cross-sector agreements, which were either transposed via directives or via the autonomous route. These include:

■      Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave concluded by UNICE, CEEP and ETUC. In 2009, the European social partners agreed on a revision of the parental leave agreement (EU0907029I).

■      Council Directive 97/81/EC of 15 December 1997 concerning the framework agreement on part-time work concluded by UNICE, CEEP and ETUC.

■      Council Directive 1999/70/EC of 28 June 1999 concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded by ETUC, UNICE and CEEP.

■      The framework agreement on telework was signed in 2002. This was the first time that the signatory parties implemented an agreement in accordance with the procedures and parties specific to the social partners in the Member States.

■      The framework agreement on work-related stress (2004).

■      The framework agreement on harassment and violence at work (2007).

■      The framework agreement on inclusive labour markets (2010).

Sectoral social dialogue

European sectoral social dialogue is an instrument of EU social policy and industrial relations at sectoral level. It consists of negotiations between the European trade union and employer organisations of a specific sector of the economy. The Commission, in its Communication on ‘The European social dialogue, a force for innovation and change’, has expressed the view that the sectoral level ‘is the proper level for discussion on many issues linked to employment, such as working conditions, vocational training and industrial change, the knowledge society, demographic patterns, enlargement and globalisation’ (COM (2002) 341 final of 26 June 2002). For this reason, the Commission is committed to establishing more committees in order to ensure that all the main sectors are covered. In October 2016, there were 43 sectoral social dialogue committees, which have produced a variety of joint texts and agreements, covering over 6 million companies and 145 million workers in a range of sectors. In terms of outcomes, the number of texts adopted in the committees is extremely stable. With regard to the topics covered, an analysis of the texts shows the diversity of themes discussed, many of them directly related to the EU agenda. Overall, the analysis of European sectoral social dialogue highlights a variety of documents unevenly spread over the years but nevertheless increasing in number.

The most striking development relating to European sectoral social dialogue agreements emerged in a number of transport sectors as a result of negotiations following their initial exclusion from the Working Time Directive, Council Directive 93/104/EC (as amended by Directive 2000/34/EC). The intention was never that this should be a permanent exclusion, but that these sectors should reach social dialogue agreements at EU level adopting working time arrangements tailored to their exigencies. For example, this was accomplished by an agreement in the maritime sector on 30 September 1998, given legal effect by Directive 1999/63/EC and, for the civil aviation sector, by an agreement in March 2000, given legal effect by Directive 2000/79/EC.

According to the European Commission, a total of 905 texts have been adopted since 1998: 85 cross-industry texts and 820 sectoral outcomes (social dialogue database, November 2016). In terms of the sectoral social dialogue, 820 texts in 43 sectors have been adopted over the past few decades yet just 14 agreements, leading some experts and EU actors to argue that social dialogue needs to be more efficient.  In total, the number of agreements signed equates to less than 2.5% of the texts signed.

Company-level social dialogue

European social dialogue at company level takes place through a variety of means. European Works Councils (EWCs) agreements are concluded by EWCs, standing bodies providing for the information and consultation of employees in community-scale undertakings and community-scale groups of undertakings as required by the 1994 European Works Council Directive (Directive 94/45/EC), now updated by the recast Directive (2009/38/EC).

A transnational company agreement (TCA) is, according to the European Commission in its 2012 Staff Working Document (PDF): agreement comprising reciprocal commitments the scope of which extends to the territory of several States and which has been concluded by one or more representatives of a company or a group of companies on the one hand, and one or more workers’ organisations on the other hand, and which covers working and employment conditions and/or relations between employers and workers or their representatives.

According to the 2009 Eurofound report European and international framework agreements: Practical experiences and strategic approaches (PDF), TCAs can be subdivided into International Framework Agreements (IFAs) and European Framework Agreements (EFAs). IFAs are signed by Global Union Federations (GUFs) and have a global scope of application, whereas European Framework Agreements (EFAs) have a regional (European) scope of application and are signed by European Industry Federations (EIFs), EWCs and/or national unions and central management.

The Commission set up a database consisting of transnational company agreements, with information sheets containing details on every company and agreement.

There are also agreements on employee involvement in a European Company, also known as a Societas Europaea (SE). SEs are governed by EC law directly applicable in the Member States, rather than by national law. This was established by the European Company Statute (ECS) Regulation (Council Regulation (EC) 2157/2001 on the statute for a European company (SE)).

New start for social dialogue

More recently, the European Commission initiated a 'New start for social dialogue' in March 2015, along with the social partners, focused on the need for a more substantial involvement of the social partners in the European Semester; a stronger emphasis on the capacity building of national social partners; a strengthened involvement of social partners in EU policy and law-making; and a clearer relation between social partners' agreements and the better regulation agenda. In June 2016, a statement on a new start for social dialogue was signed by representatives of the Commission, the EU social partners and the Dutch Council Presidency.

See also: European collective agreements; European social partners; EU system of industrial relations; framework agreements; freedom of association; joint opinions; open method of coordination; tripartite concertation; Val Duchesse.



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