Eurofound defines ‘capacity building’ as the enhancement of the skills, abilities and powers of social partners to engage effectively at different levels (EU, national, regional, sectoral, company and establishment) in the following industrial relations processes: social dialogue, collective bargaining, (co-)regulating the employment relationship, tripartite and bipartite consultations, public policymaking and influencing public policymaking via advocacy.
Ideally, capacity building should result in an institutional context that fosters good quality, stable and sustainable industrial relations. Eurofound’s definition was developed in consultation with its tripartite stakeholders (employers, trade unions and governments).
Background and status
Relaunch of social dialogue
As part of the relaunch of social dialogue in 2014, the then European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for a stronger emphasis on developing the capacity building competences of national social partners.
On 16 June 2016, the EU’s Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) adopted conclusions stressing the importance of the capacity building of social partners at national and sectoral levels. On 27 June 2016, European cross-industry social partners, the European Commission and the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union signed the quadripartite statement ‘A new start for social dialogue’. The document underlines the signatories’ commitment to continuing to build the capacity of social partners in EU Member States.
- BusinessEurope: A new start for social dialogue: Statement of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the European Commission and the European social partners (PDF)
Employment Guideline 7, one of a set of employment guidelines agreed by the EU institutions on 16 July 2018, stresses the importance of the meaningful involvement of social partners in the design and implementation of social and employment policies, notably through support for building the capacity of social partners.
- EUR-Lex: Council Decision on guidelines for the employment policies of the Member States (2018/1215)
Involvement of all stakeholders
According to Principle 8 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, ‘Social dialogue and involvement of workers’, support for increased capacity of social partners to promote social dialogue should be encouraged. In the Joint employment report 2019 adopted by EPSCO on 15 March 2019, the Commission and the Council reiterate that increased capacity should be considered a common denominator for well-performing and effective tripartite social dialogue systems. According to the 2019–2021 work programme of the European cross-industry social partners, capacity-building activities remain a priority.
In its communication of 14 January 2020, the new Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen restated its intention to promote social dialogue and collective bargaining and to increase the capacity of the social partners at EU and national levels.
- European Commission: European Pillar of Social Rights (PDF)
- European Commission: Joint employment report 2019
- ETUC: European social dialogue: Work programme 2019–2021
- EUR-Lex: A strong social Europe for just transitions, COM(2020)14 final
At international and European levels, there are several examples of successful capacity-building activities run by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Training Centre of the ILO and the EU. At national level, Eurofound has identified potential future challenges in two main areas: 
- Structural gaps and barriers: weakness of social partners and their lack of representativeness and mandate to negotiate; limited sectoral collective bargaining and low collective bargaining coverage; limited tripartism and lack of frameworks for effective social dialogue; lack of social partner autonomy and a dominant role played by the state; and lack of trust between social partners, the two sides of industry and governments.
- Needs: legislative reforms to promote social dialogue and collective bargaining; a supportive role played by the state; increased membership, representativeness and capacity among social partner organisations, and a stronger mandate to negotiate; and better human resources and skills development; more financial resources.
In Eurofound’s report, Capacity building for effective social dialogue in the European Union (2020), a set of policy pointers were identified in pre-COVID-19 that will continue to be relevant during the future years of recovery from the pandemic.
- Attempts to close structural gaps within national systems of industrial relations should be supported.
- The autonomy of social partners should be respected and reinforced.
- Social partners should be supported in their efforts to increase membership, representativeness, and their capacity to negotiate agreements.
- Bipartite social dialogue should be underpinned by supportive legal frameworks.
- Developing the expertise of both sides of industry should be given priority.
- Social partners should invest in building or rebuilding trust to achieve more effective social dialogue.
- Better links between EU and national levels of industrial relations, including better implementation of European autonomous agreements, would foster more active social dialogue.
- More awareness-raising campaigns could be undertaken to highlight the potential of social dialogue to improve working conditions and increase competitiveness.
There is no doubt that social dialogue has made an important contribution in responding to previous crises. However, it is clear that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be unprecedented knock-on effects in terms of the resources and tools available for capacity building and social dialogue.
It is evident that social dialogue and well-functioning industrial relations can serve the general interest and should be supported by public policy.