European Social Dialogue: A Stalled Engine

joel decaillonSocial dialogue dates back to the birth of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. It has gradually been incorporated into the treaties in a number of stages, most notably the Social Protocol of the Maastricht Treaty. Social dialogue has been beset by two major problems.The first is the diversity of national trade union systems (trade union confederations in some countries are not authorised to negotiate on behalf of their members, for example). The second problem relates to the attitude of employer associations, which are reluctant to negotiate at European level. Employers initially agreed to take part in social dialogue in order to hamper, rather than further, Community legislation.

The employers’ arguments can be summarised as follows:

a) The harmonisation of working conditions and industrial relations must be subject to the demands and constraints of the market.

b) The principle of subsidiarity must be fully applied, meaning that the Commission must not intervene in social issues if they can be dealt with at national level.

c) Social dialogue must not be a means of circumventing traditional legislative processes. In particular, UNICE and now BUSINESSEUROPE have long been adamant that social dialogue should not serve as the basis either for new Community legislation or for the negotiation of collective agreements. Generally speaking, its objective is to anchor industrial relations ‘at the bottom’ (where employer interests are well-represented) and ‘at the top’ in a social dialogue that commits them as little as possible. This strategy can be seen as reflecting the very low level of coordination among employer organisations, which in turn is a means of opposing the establishment of centralised relations with European trade unions, who find it hard to get an employer representative to take accountability. From the employers’ point of view, the unanimous vote system means that all they need to do is lobby national governments effectively to block all undesirable Community decisions.

Europe-wide trade union mobilisation is most often assessed in the light of EU social policies

The weakness of positive social integration is accompanied by negative forms of integration, particularly those aimed at using regulations to establish transnational forms of labour market governance, e.g. by promoting competitive cross-border posting (Laval, Viking, Ruffert and Luxembourg rulings) on the grounds of supposed labour law ‘inflexibility’, or by attacking the pension and social security system. It can be argued that, in this respect, the EU is striking at the heart of Europe’s productive systems, or at least one of their vital components, namely industrial relations, a term encompassing workers’ status within companies, employer-worker relations and forms of flexibility and employment. In other words, what is at stake here is both wage relations and the conditions for competitiveness. We therefore need to contemplate the possibility of a Europeanisation of industrial relations through the standards and labour disputes to which they give rise.

As for European framework agreements and action frameworks of more limited scope, we can reasonably assume that the impact of these standards  will differ depending in particular on:

a) national systems

b) national social legislation

c) the sectors involved

Convergence effects are undoubtedly felt most in less protected sectors and the ‘poorest’ countries. EU legislation on parental leave, for instance, led to a massive catch-up effect in Ireland and Portugal, two countries where such measures were virtually non-existent. Indeed, the justification for framework agreements and action frameworks is based on the principle of the non-regression clause. Yet the current crisis, with the role of the Troika, has undermined this concept in virtually all southern and central European countries, where the hierarchy of social standards and labour codes have been challenged. What value does such a reference to non-regression have today?

Is it still a point of reference? If yes, how can we enforce it?

On issues as fundamental as redistribution policies and income, there is no coordination mechanism at a European or Eurozone level. European social policies are still very far from displaying the features of a welfare state. At present, Europe is merely advocating a general policy agenda that is much more neoliberal than socio-democratic in nature, while imposing budget criteria laid down in the Treaty.

Furthermore, the difficulties with mobilisation faced by the ETUC powerfully highlight the conditions needed to enable the expression of solidarity between EU workers. A tentative hypothesis can be derived in this context, namely that it is difficult to separate the expression of solidarity between workers from the feeling of sharing a ‘European identity’, even if the EU is primarily considered a community of interests. However, numerous studies agree that European identity remains problematic, to say the least, for the bulk of European citizens. We can rightly argue that social conflict is a powerful driving force in the forging of identity, but it is uncertain whether the European construction process will have an impact similar to that of the creation and consolidation of nation states in the late 19th century. This is probably a handicap that European trade unions will have to face on a long-term basis.

The ETUC has neither full supranational negotiating powers nor the ability to directly mobilise workers. In the absence of a Europe-wide right to strike, organising a simultaneous work stoppage in multiple EU member states is a huge challenge due to the complexity and diversity of national legislation. From this perspective, the day of action and strikes on 14 November 2012 was a very significant step forward.

The state of trade unionism at national level is a major factor in explaining the situation in which European trade unionism finds itself. Other reasons – internal to the organisation – also need to be considered. Indeed, the ETUC can be seen as a vast mosaic, complex and varied (a quality reinforced by geographical and ideological expansion), whose modus operandi is constrained (and sometimes frustrated) by the side-effects of historical divisions, namely the persistence or survival of disagreements between different social democratic and Christian cultural traditions. Paradoxically, the ETUC’s strength lies in its organic unity. Demanding the creation of a Social Union within the Eurozone would undoubtedly result in a more efficient political framework for negotiation and the expression of protest and would doubtless be a driving force for the advancement of social rights throughout Europe.

This article is part of the EU Social Dimension expert sourcing project jointly organised by SEJ, the ETUCIG Metall, the Hans Böckler Stiftung, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Lasaire.