EU states eye political response to Laval court ruling

Employment ministers from France, Luxembourg and Sweden yesterday (9 October) called for a political solution to European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that has inflamed debate on the balance between workers’ rights and economic freedom in the EU.

The ministers convened at the Forum on Workers’ Rights and Economic Freedoms in Brussels to discuss the implications of the Laval court ruling, which has come under fire for opening the door to “wage dumping” within the Union (EURACTIV 27/02/08). 

The Laval case concerned a Latvian company which posted dozens of workers at a Swedish building site on wages below the national minimum, triggering legal action from Swedish trade unions. But in a landmark ruling, the ECJ said minimum working conditions were limited by the EU’s principles of freedom of movement and establishment (see EURACTIV 12/12/07 and EURACTIV 19/12/07). 

Luxembourg’s Employment and Social Affairs Minister François Biltgen claimed that the judges who ruled against his country in a controversial case earlier this year did not simply apply the rules, but they interpreted them. He said their interpretation was “very restrictive; literal rather than teleological”. 

Biltgen only saw one way of reconciling the wording of the text with the law’s original spirit: the adoption of a political act, such as a Commission communication, which would clarify an EU directive on the foreign posting of workers. 

Legal responses to the Court’s rulings, such as the introduction of a social protocol in the EU Treaties (as suggested by trade unions) or a revision of the directive, are unviable, Biltgen said. 

Xavier Bertrand, the French employment minister, agreed with Biltgen, stating: “The judges have filled a gap left open by politicians.” “Social Europe must be restarted,” said Bertrand, adding: “It is absolutely necessary that politicians take the initiative.” 

Swedish Employment Minister Sven-Otto Littorin called for quick ratification of the Lisbon Treaty rejected by Irish voters in June, saying it provided a strong legal basis for the protection for workers’ rights as it reduces the risk of ‘social dumping’. 

Littorin also explained how the Swedish labour model was challenged by the Court’s rulings. In the Laval case, EU judges found that Swedish labour provisions were not precise enough. But Littorin rebutted the argument, drawing attention to Sweden’s long-standing tradition of self-regulation. Wage agreements in particular are left to the social partners rather than to the state, and Sweden wants to stick to this model, he said. But he did say that Sweden was ready to look for a compromise over the court’s ruling. 

Among several other government ministers who participated in the forum, only the Czech Republic’s Petr Ne?as welcomed the recent court rulings: in his view, social Europe can only be sustained by enhanced competitiveness, he said. 

EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Špidla took on board the comments and criticism: “This conference has no hidden agenda: we are open to learn from the debate,” he concluded. 

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