The European social dialogue
As a part of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC), the European social dialogue is a fundamental element in the European social model. It encompasses the discussions, negotiations and joint actions undertaken by the European social partners.
At Community level, workers are represented by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). European employers are represented by three different organisations: the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP), created in 1961; BUSINESSEUROPE (formerly the Union of the Industrial Federations of the EEC countries - UNICE), founded in 1958; and, following a cooperation agreement signed in 1998, the European Association of Craft Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (UEAPME), which participates in the social dialogue as a member of the BUSINESSEUROPE delegation.
The involvement of the social partners at the European level is organised around three different types of activities:
tripartite consultation, which describes the exchanges between the social partners and the European public authorities;
consultation of the social partners, which covers the activities of the consultative committees and the official consultations in the spirit of Article 153 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU);
the European social dialogue, which is the name given to the bipartite work of the social partners, whether or not it stems from the official consultations of the Commission based on Articles 154 and 155 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU).
The European social dialogue has brought many results, notably the adoption of some 60 joint texts by the interprofessional social partners: this process supplements the national social dialogues existing in the majority of the Member States.
The European dialogue, which is now structured within the governance of the Union, allows the social partners to make a significant contribution to the definition of European social standards.
The consultations between the social partners began in the mid-60s within the consultative committees, the permanent committee on employment and tripartite conferences on economic and social questions. However, it was in 1985, with the launch of a bipartite social dialogue, promoted by Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission at the time, that the social dialogue at the Community level evolved into a genuine European negotiating forum.
The evolution of the social dialogue process has gone through three stages:
I - (1985-1991) In this first period, the bipartite activities resulted in the adoption of resolutions, declarations and joint opinions, without any binding force.
II - (1992-1999) The second phase was opened with the signature, on 31 October 1991, of an agreement between the social partners, which was subsequently integrated into the protocol on social policy and annexed to the Maastricht Treaty in 1991.
Thanks to the Maastricht Treaty, the agreements negotiated by the European social partners could, if the partners so wished, be given binding legal effect via a decision by the Council.
In 1997, the 1991 agreement was incorporated into the Amsterdam Treaty (Articles 154 and 155 of the (TFEU). In that context, the European social dialogue led to the implementation of three framework agreements (on parental leave in 1996 revised in 2009, on part-time work in 1997, and on fixed-term contracts in 1999) via Council directives.
III - (1999-2005) The third stage began in December 2001, when the European social partners presented a joint contribution to the Laeken European Council. In accordance with the 1991 agreement (Art. 155 par II TFEU), this last phase has been characterised by greater independence and autonomy for the social dialogue.
Multiannual Work Programmes
At the Summit in Genval on 22 November 2002, the social partners adopted their first joint Multiannual Work Programme for the period 2003-2005.
In this framework, the social partners concluded the first agreements in a new generation of ‘autonomous’ initiatives, whereby implementation at the national level was entrusted to the social partners themselves. This fresh approach allowed the conclusion of three important framework agreements on teleworking (2002), on work-related stress (2004), harassment and violence at work (2007) and on “inclusive labour markets” (2010), a framework of actions for the development of lifelong skills and qualifications (2002) and a framework of action on equality between men and women (2005).
In March 2006, the social partners set the seal on their second Multiannual Work Programme for 2006-2008. This commits the participants to action in a range of areas including:
negotiating a voluntary framework agreement on harassment and violence at work - this was concluded in April 2007.
joint action to manage change;
building social dialogue in the new EU Member States;
following up existing agreements.
In May 2009, the European social partners adopted their third Multiannual Work Programme, to run until 2010, identifying areas of joint action.
Social partner input in EU decisions
Drawing on Article 155 TFEU, the European social dialogue process makes provision for consultation with the social partners at Community level across the entire raft of subjects relating to employment and social affairs, listed in Art. 153 TFEU.
This process is organised via two compulsory phases. First, the Commission consults the social partners on the possible direction of a Community action; then it consults them on the content of that action. If, after each of these phases, the partners fail to reach agreement on the opening of bipartite negotiations, but the Commission still believes that action is desirable, it presents a proposal.
Since 1997, the Council presidency has invited the social partners to meet the ‘troika’ ahead of the European Councils: since the Nice Summit (2000), it has been decided that these meetings should be held annually, before the spring European Council. The decision by the Council on 6 March 2003 stipulates that the Tripartite Social Summit is made up of representatives of the incumbent Council presidency, the next two presidencies, the Commission and the social partners.
The setting up of the Tripartite Social Summit represented a remarkable political step, for it recognises the role of tripartite consultation at the highest level of European decision-making. The fields covered by tripartite consultation are macroeconomic dialogue, employment, social protection, education and training.
The Social Dialogue Summit on 29 September 2005 celebrated the 20th anniversary of the European social dialogue. The social partners confirmed in a joint press release that they “intend to continue contributing constructively to the EU integration process”. Likewise, “the EU social dialogue counts on the EU Council and on the Commission to give a clear signal that they intend to steer Europe out of lethargy”.
The ETUC is committed to the establishment of a strong Social Europe. European social dialogue and cooperation between the social partners and the Community institutions is crucial in enabling the EU to meet the challenges it faces.
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