Commission seeks to revive battered social dialogue

President Jean-Claude Juncker during the high-level conference on social dialogue [European Commission]

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.

During a high-level conference, the first organised by the Juncker Commission, the EU executive, employers and trade unions discussed the way forward for social dialogue in the aftermath of the crisis.

Back in July, European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker promised to be the champion of the social market economy. He went further during the conference, calling himself ‘the president of social dialogue’. 

No blame game

Social dialogue was launched by the then European Commission president Jacques Delors in Val Duchesse, as a way to involve social partners in the Single Market process. 30 years later, the machinery seems to be stuck and unable to produce the results it once did.

Some point to enlargement, which has mixed and matched countries with very uneven levels of collective bargaining schemes, others blame the financial and economic crisis.

Since enlargement one cannot deny that it is difficult to organise social dialogue effectively at the EU level. In some countries, social dialogue is effective, efficient and representative, but in others social partners have lost representativeness and credibility and even barely exist, explained Patrick Itschert, deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

While in some member states strong social dialogue has been helpful in resisting the crisis, collective bargaining systems in others have undergone changes and remained weaker and fragmented, at times accelerating the shift to decentralised collective bargaining.

Industrial Relations in Europe 2014Industrial Relations in Europe 2014

Nobody is blaming one or the other for the collapse of social dialogue, said one EU source. The reality is that social dialogue was framed back in the 1990s and it needs to be transformed so that it can adapt and tackle the current challenges faced by the 28-country bloc.

“If we want a social market economy in Europe, we need a European – I repeat – a European social dialogue,” insisted European Parliament president Martin Schulz, lamenting the inadequate presence of social partners in the EU economic governance.

European semester at stake

The Commission is determined to reinforce competitiveness and fairness of the social market economy. “It cannot be done without the social partners,” said Commission Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue Valdis Dombrovskis.

On the other hand, the EU executive has realised social partners can foster the proper implementation of the European semester, a yearly cycle of economic policy coordination among member states.

So far, the uptake by member states of the country-specific recommendations for economic reforms has been mixed. The recommendations are based on detailed analyses of each country’s situation and provide guidance on how to boost growth, increase competitiveness and create jobs.

“We are not here to implement decisions taken by others,” said Klaus Beck, executive secretary of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), adding that social partners should be included earlier in the process of shaping the country-specific recommendations

This year, for the first time, the Commission has decided to publish the country reports earlier so that social partners, government and other stakeholders have time to engage with the Commission before it crafts the recommendations.

At the same time, Commission representations in the member states have put in place European semester officers, so that there is better communication flow and engagement between Brussels and EU capitals.

Aware of the need to revive the social partners’ relationship, BusinessEurope is pushing for a transformation of social dialogue into a partnership facilitating the necessary reforms.

“We need a joint vision with our social partners on the challenges ahead, especially on the labour markets. The European social dialogue should be a facilitator for necessary reforms. Trade unions should acknowledge that European companies face severe global competition, and improved competitiveness alone will allow us to keep Europe’s social model functioning,” said BusinessEurope president Emma Mercegaglia.

President Juncker added the European Commission and the social partners shall sit again around the table in the same spirit Jacques Delors sat with trade unionists and employers at Val Duchess in 1985, but with a greater vision.

BUSINESSEUROPE Director General Markus J. Beyrer said: “Europe’s social problems derive from a lack of competitiveness and not from a lack of European social legislation. European companies are confronted with numerous obstacles which will have to be overcome in order to allow them to create more jobs. Nostalgia for the 1990s does not help. We need to address the current challenges.”

“Dialogue is not just about talking, it is about reaching agreements and acting on them” added ETUC Bernadette Ségol. “There needs to be a clear commitment from business and EU institutions to quality jobs, and to positive social as well as economic impacts from EU policies.”

"European social partners have particular expertise in their sectors and in the realities of their workplaces. They are best placed to help respond to issues such as management of change, restructuring, anticipation of future skills and training needs, transitions to employment, occupational safety and health, labour market integration, youth employment, etc; topics that are all of great importance in the light of the EU2020 strategy," said the Public services employers' forum.

EuroCommerce Director-General Christian Verschueren underlined the contribution that social dialogue in the retail and wholesale sector can make to equipping Europe for innovation and the digital single market.

Verschueren said, “Retailers and wholesalers employ almost 30 million Europeans, and are actively involved in creating and maintaining a constructive and dynamic dialogue with our social partners. The EU economy, and as a central part of it, the retail and wholesale sector, are undergoing major changes as a result of innovation and the digital revolution. 

UEAPME President Gunilla Almgren welcomed the new Commission’s initiative as the role social dialogue can or should play today differs significantly from 30 years ago. Indeed, now it is about the full involvement of social partners in governing the European Monetary Union and the European Semester.

Almgren proposed “to widen to scope of dialogue at European but also at national level to overcome the difficulties created by focusing mainly on wages and labour market reforms. Social partners should work together to increase competitiveness with the aim to create additional jobs and growth in the private sector.” 

European social dialogue refers to discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions involving organisations representing the two sides of industry (employers and workers). It was launched 30 years ago in Val Duchesse and was aimed at involving the European social partners in the internal market process.

In the Annual Growth Survey 2015,  the Commission committed to a better association of the social partners in the European Semester process, both at European and national levels. The Commission will discuss the country analysis from the Country reports directly with both EU level and national social partner organisations.

Social partners and the Commission will examine as part of the 'new start for social dialogue' how the better association of social partners at both EU and national level can be further supported. This will include the use of EU funding, such as the European Social Fund, since special attention will be paid to strengthening industrial relations and social dialogue at national level and enhancing the impact at national level of EU social dialogue outcomes. 

  • May 2015: Commission expected to publish country-specific recommendations

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