The end of European labour agreements?

More than 110,000 people took part in demonstrations across Ireland on 9 Feb 2013, in protest at the country’s continued bank debt burden. [William Murphy/Flickr]

Barely a dozen sectoral agreements have been finalised since social dialogue was established in Europe. The social partners’ contradictory objectives and the progressive disinvestment of the European Commission are to blame for this. EURACTIV France reports.

On 8 March 2017, representatives from EU employee and employer organisations signed a framework agreement on active ageing and an inter-generational approach. Secured after 9 months of negotiations, this independent agreement will be carried out over three years by social partners at a national level.

This a first since the conclusion in 2010, of the autonomous agreement on inclusive labour markets. Does this show a renewal in popularity on social cross-industry dialogue in Europe following several years of failures (specifically the review on the Working Time Directive in 2012, and the talks on the arbitration of work-life balance in 2016)?

A revival but on which basis?

There seems to be a revival on labour agreements in Europe. During Claude Junker’s nomination at the head of the European Commission, he engaged himself to make social dialogue an important part of his mandate.

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The European Commission wants to establish minimum social rights as part of a package due to be unveiled in Spring 2016. Paris and Berlin are exploring plans for a “social Eurogroup”, the French President said. EURACTIV France reports

“His nomination was a sign of great hope”, states Christophe Degryse, head of the Foresight Unit at the European Trade Union Institute, a centre of expertise affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

“The European Commission is an important figure of cross-industry social dialogue, its mission is to promote it. However the Commission isn’t the only figure in labour agreements, and at the start of 2018 we are still waiting to see on which basis labour agreements will be revived”, added Degryse.

European social dialogue still unknown to many workers

More than 30 years after it was launched by Jacques Delors, the European social dialogue is still struggling to reach workers. This is the main finding of a detailed survey published this week by Humanis. EURACTIV France reports

Will for reforms against dismantling scares

As social partners are nowhere near being on the same page.

“Our biggest concern is making sure that labour agreements are truly relevant in terms of economic and social development. To us these two aspects are inseparable and need to be developed at the same time, whilst also taking into account the diversity of circumstances in Europe and their evolution. The rise of productivity and job creation will, in the future, allow us to maintain the social well-being that distinguishes Europe worldwide”, states Maxime Cerutti, the director of BusinessEurope’s Social Affairs department, one of the three European employers’ associations.

In other words, BusinessEurope nowadays wants to discuss a “partnership for reforms” with trade unions. However, this does not sit well with the unions, as they see the dismantling risk of certain social rights through reforms, the opposite of what they seek.

Realistically the dry period on cross-industry dialogue has lasted. Long gone are the days of Val Duchesse, when Jacques Delors was putting together the foundations of the dialogue with social partners, the terms of which were defined in an agreement in 1991 and annexed in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

Thereby officialised, the cross-industry social dialogue enables the Commission to consult the recognized social partners, BusinessEurope, the UEAPME and the CEEP representing employees, and the ETUC representing trade unions, on social proposals. Trade Unions and employer organisations can also negotiate agreements on their own initiative.

A lost Golden Age

At the time when Europe was about to introduce its internal market, labour agreements appeared to be root for discussions, however thirty years later it can boast about tens of cross-industry agreements. Most of them were agreed during a ten-year period only, which shows a long gone Golden Age.

“The cross-industry dialogue operates well when social partners are committed and the European Commission plays the role of an impartial referee. However, it has been neglected under José-Manuel Barroso’s presidency (2004-2014). In the name of social partners’ independence, European institutions took a step back”, says Christophe Degryse.

The three framework agreements, subsequently turned into Directives (on parental leave – 1995, amended in 2009, part-time work – 1997, fixed-duration work – 1999), have been followed by separate agreements applied at national level, negotiated by the social partners themselves (on telecommuting – 2002, work-related stress – 2004, harassment and violence at work – 2007 and inclusive labour markets – 2010).

This has resulted in different degrees of implementation, if any in certain central and eastern European countries, with less-developed labour relations traditions. This conclusion, albeit partial, since it does not take into account other forms of negotiations, should be compared with the expectations expressed at the Val Duchesse 30 years ago, when the dialogue between social partners was supposed to form a foundation of a resolutely social Europe.

Commission seeks to revive battered social dialogue

In a move to give new impetus to social partners’ relations, seen as instrumental in the new economic governance set up, the European Commission launched on Thursday (5 March) a new start for social dialogue.


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