20th Anniversary of the European Social Dialogue - Future Perspectives of the European Social Dialogue

Brussels, 14/04/2005 (Speech)

To be checked against delivery



European social dialogue practices have over time become more diversified and broader in scope. At every step of the way, the ETUC has sought to play a positive and pro-active role.

All started with the ground-breaking Val Duchesse process of independent dialogue between European organisations initiated by Jacques Delors in 1985. I am glad today to have the opportunity once more to thank him for his efforts on behalf of social Europe that certainly changed attitudes towards Europe in my country as well as others.

A crucial turning point was the Agreement on Social Policy reached between the ETUC, UNICE and CEEP in October 1991, that called for mandatory consultation of the European social partners on Commission proposals in the area of social affairs, and an option for negotiation between social partners to lead to framework agreements.

The agreement was annexed to the Maastricht Treaty and applied to all member states except the UK, following John Major's opt-out during the Maastricht negotiations. One of the first acts of the new British Labour government elected in May 1997 was their agreement to incorporate the Maastricht ASP into the Amsterdam Treaty signed the following month.

The introduction of an Employment title in the Amsterdam Treaty, that had been called for by the trade unions and the Swedish government and few others, and opposed by the employers, led to the Lisbon process and with it the introduction of the ‘open method of coordination'.

The involvement of the social partners in those processes has brought a new dimension to social dialogue. We are still working through those changes.

The European social partners' joint contribution to the Laeken European Summit in 2001, which launched the Convention on the Constitution, proposed the rationalisation of social concertation into a single forum, the Tripartite Social Summit for Growth and Employment (to discuss economic, employment and social policy with the Council and the Commission), and the promotion of bipartite social dialogue through the adoption of a mid-term work programme 2003-2005.

I think that the Social Summit we held on 21 March was a success. And it contributed positively to the Spring Summit that immediately followed it. Many had feared that the summit would give the green light to the destruction of the European Social Model. That was by no means so, and our arguments, echoed by 75,000 voices on the streets of Brussels, were heeded.

Ongoing work

The social partners are now working on a new joint work programme to be discussed and adopted by the end of the year.

I must say, though, that I am worried at the consequences of any loss of momentum in the social dialogue processes.

What I would describe as the ‘classical' method, of agreements leading to a directive is, to put it mildly, in neutral gear. But agreements on parental leave (1995), part-time work (1997) and fixed-term work (1999) were implemented under that option, and I think that they proved their worth.

Blockage by the employers is a reason why the issue of temporary agency work is currently a major casus belli in the European social field.

The second option is for agreements to be implemented in accordance with national procedures and practices. Such an ‘autonomous' agreement, on telework, was reached for the first time in July 2002. Since then an agreement on stress at work has also been agreed.

Frameworks of actions on the lifelong development of competences and qualifications (2002) and on gender equality (2005) have been also been agreed.

So this is another avenue that we are happy to explore, although I must say that it does raise some questions in some countries. No recourse to EU institutional procedures to ensure an erga omnes effect is foreseen. This raises questions concerning the scope and effect of their implementation by national industrial relations systems. It also raises the question of the incorporation of EU autonomous agreements into the acquis communautaire. So we need to rely on the good faith of our employer partners, and of governments. At the same time we will be monitoring implementation of the ‘autonomous agreements'.

In the new round of talks, we think that it will be crucially important to move towards a more qualitative phase of the social dialogue. We should, as social partners, identify the rights and obligations attached to each instrument produced at the European level and negotiate more European framework agreements.

This is a must in the light of the timid attitude from the Commission in terms of proposing new legislative initiatives in its social agenda.

And, of course, the political willingness from employers still needs to be tested.


I recognise the difficulties, but they must prompt us to redouble our efforts.

Enlargement is further increasing the diversity within and among systems. I will not dwell this time on the consequences of one of the previous enlargements - the one in particular that brought in the UK - but rather look at industrial relations in the new EU member states.

With the exception of Cyprus and Malta, these are still in the process of development and centre almost exclusively at the national level through tripartite structures. Such structures, often relying on the state to give them impulse, cannot be relied upon as an alternative to an autonomous bipartite relationship.

Sectoral social dialogue is almost inexistent, except for Slovenia. Most collective agreements are to be found at enterprise level. One key factor accounting for this is the scarcity of employers' organisations with which trade unions can engage. This is explained by historical factors, but also by the reluctance of employers in the private sector to join organisations and their preference for company bargaining, if any.

To help remedy this, the European Social Partners are working together in a major project aimed at supporting the social partners in the new member states to enter into social dialogue at both national and EU levels.

This represents a major strategic challenge for the European trade union movement. We need to ensure that the EU's increased diversity does not slow down, let alone reverse, the process of social convergence. Failing to do so would only give a further twist to the prevailing mood of euroscepticism.

The Constitution}}

And this brings me to the current hot potato.

The draft constitution is the best shot we will have for a long time to consolidate the acquis, including the undisputed place of the social partners in the Union's processes.

The role of the social partners as autonomous ‘co-legislators' in the framing of social policy instruments is one that the ETUC highlighted in discussions on the Constitutional Treaty.

Its inclusion, among the principles in Part I and the confirmation of existing practice in Part III are key advances, that I do not see reflected in many national constitutional provisions among the Member States.

The reference to the Tripartite Summit is another important reason why we regard the Treaty now up for ratification as an advance that should be supported.

Some people, on the left and on the right, may still prefer class war but I will go for the European way, that of dialogue

I join with Philippe de Buck in commending the new Constitution as a firm base for social dialogue and we join together today to support the campaign for its ratifi