EFTA Conference: “Towards Participatory Democracy in the European Union:
The EU has been a participatory democracy from the start. It has sought to involve social partners and more recently civil society organisations, rather than just relying on the classical instruments of democracy such as Governments and Parliaments.
Thus, the Treaty of Rome formally envisaged the involvement of the social partners - and civil society - through the European Economic and Social Committee.
But from the very beginning, the European Commission realised that it also needed direct contacts with us, and others - and regular meetings were held between Commissioners and/or officials and the ETUC [and employers and others - eg farmers and consumers etc].
There were even EU budgets established for meeting rooms and interpretation etc because the European Commission realised that participatory democracy at the European level would not work other wise.
A ’qualititive’ change took place with the Maastricht Treaty - not only was a considerable boost given to social policy by the extension of the qualified majority vote, but the role of the social partners themselves was enlarged [Treaty obligation to consult social partners on social initiatives, right to negotiate agreements instead, and the possibilitity of them then being given legal backing].
The Amsterdam Treaty also gave social partners a role on the Employment Strategy [ie the Treaty says that the Employment Committee has to consult with social partners] - and this has become the norm for the open method of coordination.
Participatory democracy does not of course only extend to social partners /Commission work. As the role of the European Parliament has grown, so have its contacts with the social partners.
And the same is true of the European Council - in the old days, ETUC contacts with the Council were pretty much at an administrative level, but over the last decade, the ETUC has been in the Justus Lipsius building almost as much as we are in the Breydel building - Presidencies are more important now than they used to be, but this has not led to a form of ’intergovernmentalism’ that excludes the social partners.
Indeed the new Treaty formalises the role of a new body - the Tripartite Social Summit.
How else will the new treaty affect this model of participatory democracy?
The key point is that the model has not been challenged - rather it has been confirmed.
The ETUC would have liked a more ambitious European Constitution - especially on economic governance, and on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but at the same time we were worried that the neo-conservatives would try to dismantle participatory democracy - along with the rest of their ’deregulation’.
This has not happened. The Social Chapter, and the role of the social partners in it - and their roles in the open methods - have been confirmed.
There have of course been other important changes - not least the closer involvement of National Parliaments in European processes.
However, although the reaffirmation of this model in the Constitution, plus the backing given to ’full employment’ and to the ’social market’ etc, are strong reasons for the ETUC to campaign for the Constitution, we recognise that not everything in the social garden is rosy.
Having the right to participate is one thing; achieving what one thinks is necessary is another.
Unfortunately, at the present time a number of Governments are not prioritising social issues [though how they think they will get support in referenda if the European Union loses its human fact is beyond me].
And this is taking the pressure off employers who have frequently only agreed to negotiate with the trade unions as a way of avoiding legislation.
Our challenge is to convince Governments [again] and the employers that the European social dimension will not somehow go way: there will always be social issues that have to be addressed at the European and not just at the National or lower levels.
Given this, the sensible [the ’European’] way of proceding is to say that those most closely involved in industrial relations/labour markets - ie those that should carry responsibility - the social partners, should have the first go at trying to find solutions to problems.
Participatory democracy makes good political, social and economic sense.
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