Social dialogue

Social dialogue is a fundamental component of the European social model that gained full recognition in the Treaty with the Amsterdam reform. The social partners (representatives of management and labour) are thus able to contribute actively to designing European social policy.

Legal basis

Articles 151-156 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).


Under Article 151 TFEU, the promotion of dialogue between management and labour is recognised as a common objective of the EU and the Member States. The aim of social dialogue is to improve European governance through the involvement of the social partners in decision-making and in the implementation process.


a.Bipartite social dialogue

According to the original wording in the Treaty of Rome, one of the Commission’s tasks in the social field was to promote close cooperation between Member States with regard to the right of association and collective bargaining between employers and workers. It was only after many years, however, that this provision started to be implemented.

Set up in 1985 at the initiative of Commission President Jacques Delors, the Val Duchesse social dialogue process aimed to involve the social partners, represented by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Union of Industries of the European Community (UNICE) and the European Centre of Public Enterprises (CEEP), in the internal market process. A number of joint statements on employment, education, training and other social issues resulted from the meetings of these social partners.

In 1992, the Social Dialogue Committee (SDC) was established as the main forum for bipartite social dialogue at European level. The SDC currently meets three or four times a year and comprises 64 members (32 representing employers and 32 representing workers) either from European secretariats or national organisations. Meanwhile, the Single European Act created a legal basis for the development of a ‘Community-wide social dialogue’. In October 1991, UNICE, ETUC and CEEP adopted a joint agreement which called for mandatory consultation of the social partners on the preparation of legislation in the area of social affairs and a possibility for the social partners to negotiate framework agreements at Community level. This request was acknowledged in the Agreement annexed to the Maastricht Protocol on Social Policy, which was signed by all Member States with the exception of the United Kingdom. At national level, the social partners were thereby given the opportunity to implement directives by way of collective agreement.

The incorporation of the Agreement on Social Policy into the EC Treaty following the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam finally allowed for a single framework to apply to social dialogue within the EU. Cross-industry results of this process were the adoption of framework agreements on parental leave (1995), part-time working (1997) and fixed-term work (1999), which were implemented by Council directives.

At EU level, according to Article 154 TFEU, the Commission must consult the social partners before taking any action in the field of social policy. The social partners may then choose to negotiate among themselves an agreement on the subject of the consultation and stop the Commission’s initiative. The negotiation process can take up to nine months and the social partners have the following possibilities:

  • they may conclude an agreement and jointly ask the Commission to propose that the Council adopt a decision on implementation, or
  • having concluded an agreement among themselves, they may prefer to implement it in accordance with their own specific procedures and practices and those of the Member States (‘voluntary’ or, later on, ‘autonomous’ agreements), or
  • they may be unable to reach an agreement, in which case the Commission will resume work on the proposal in question.

Negotiations between the social partners on a framework agreement on temporary agency work ended in failure in May 2001. Thus, in March 2002, the Commission adopted a proposal for a directive based on the consensus which had emerged among the social partners. After a modification of the proposal in November 2002, the process culminated in the adoption of Directive 2008/104/EC. Similarly, after the social partners had expressed their unwillingness to engage in negotiations, in 2004 the Commission put forward a proposal on the revision of Directive 2003/88/EC concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time, including recent developments such as on-call work and flexible weekly working time. Parliament, the Commission and the Council were subsequently unable to agree on the issue, and the European social partners tried to find an agreement during a year-long negotiation process, which also broke down in December 2012 due to major differences on the treatment of on-call time as working time. In 2013, the Commission resumed the review and impact assessment process, conducting a broad public consultation in 2015, while at the same time preparing an implementation report as required by the Directive, all of which should help define the future outcome of the review. The Commission Work Programme 2017 now includes a non-legislative initiative on the implementation of the Working Time Directive. In its resolution of 19 January 2017 on a European Pillar of Social Rights[1], Parliament called for updating European social standards, including the provisions on working time.

From 1998, following a Commission decision to establish specific bodies (Commission Decision 98/500/EC of 20 May 1998), sectoral social dialogue was also strongly developed. Several committees were created in the main economic fields and they produced valuable results. Sectoral social dialogue produced three European agreements on the organisation of working time for seafarers (1998), on the organisation of working time for mobile workers in civil aviation (2000) and on certain aspects of the working conditions of mobile workers assigned to interoperable cross-border services in the railway sector (2005). These agreements were implemented by a Council decision. The ‘Agreement on workers’ health protection through the good handling and use of crystalline silica and products containing it’, signed in April 2006, was the first multi-sector outcome of the European social partners’ negotiations. In 2014, the Council implemented, by means of a directive, a sectoral agreement concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time in inland waterway transport from 2012.

In April 2012, the social partners in the hairdressing sector concluded an agreement on clear guidance for hairdressers to work in a healthy and safe environment throughout their careers, and requested a Council implementing decision. Since some Member States opposed parts of the agreement, the implementation through a Council decision did not proceed further. Instead, in June 2016, the social partners in the hairdressing sector signed a new European Framework Agreement on the protection of occupational health and safety, requesting implementation by a Council decision. In accordance with the Better Regulation agenda, the Commission will now, before submitting a proposal for an implementation decision to the Council, carry out a proportionate impact assessment, focusing in particular on the representativeness of the signatories, the legality of the agreement within the EU legal framework and respect for the subsidiarity and proportionality principles. In their open letter to President Juncker of 21 November 2016 the social partners concerned object to using the impact assessment process to justify not referring the agreement to the Council for its implementing decision and request to be fully informed about the different phases of the impact assessment process and the criteria for decision that the Commission will be using.

The agreement on teleworking concluded in May 2002 was implemented for the first time in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to the social partners and the Member States. ‘Autonomous agreements’ were also concluded by the social partners on work-related stress and on the European licence for drivers carrying out a cross-border interoperability service in 2004, as well as on harassment and violence at work (April 2007) and on inclusive labour markets (March 2010).

Following the changes introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam, the consultation process has become even more important, since it covers all the fields now falling under Article 151 TFEU.

With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, a new article (Article 152 TFEU) has been inserted, stating that ‘the Union recognises and promotes the role of the social partners at its level, taking into account the diversity of national systems. It shall facilitate dialogue between the social partners, respecting their autonomy’. Article 153 TFEU also gives Member States the possibility to entrust the social partners with the implementation of a Council decision adopted on ratification of a collective agreement signed at European level.

However, since the economic and financial crisis started, social dialogue has increasingly suffered when crisis measures were implemented, being weakened by its decentralisation, a decline in bargaining coverage and state intervention in the area of wage policy. Against this background, and in view of the finding that the Member States in which the social partnership is strongest have been the most successful in overcoming the crisis, the new Commission undertook in November 2014 to re-launch and strengthen the dialogue with social partners, especially in the new economic governance set-up, as a prerequisite for the functioning of Europe’s social market economy. In June 2016 Vice-President Dombrovskis and Commissioner Thyssen signed a joint statement on a ‘new start for social dialogue’, agreeing with social partners to involve them more in the European Semester and in EU policy and law-making in general, and emphasising capacity-building. The statement underlines the fundamental role of the European social dialogue as a significant component of EU employment and social policy-making. Following a public consultation on the European Pillar of Social Rights in 2016, the Commission published in April 2017 the European Pillar of Social Rights, which, inter alia, recognises social partners’ right to be involved in the design and implementation of employment and social policies, and supports their stronger involvement in policy and law-making while taking into account the diversity of national systems.

b.Tripartite social dialogue

From the very start of the European integration process, it was considered important to involve economic and social stakeholders in drawing up Community legislation. The Consultative Committee for Coal and Steel and the European Economic and Social Committee bear witness to this. Since the 1960s a number of advisory committees have existed, the role of which is to support the Commission in formulating specific policies. In general, these committees such as the Committee on Social Security for Migrant Workers are made up of representatives of national employers’ organisations and trade unions, as well as representatives of the Member States. From 1970 the key tripartite social dialogue forum at European level was the Standing Committee on Employment, composed of 20 representatives of the social partners, equally divided between trade unions and employers’ organisations. Reformed in 1999, the Committee was fully integrated into the coordinated European employment strategy. On the basis of a joint contribution from the social partners to the Laeken Summit in December 2001, the Council launched a Tripartite Social Summit for Growth and Employment in March 2003 (Council Decision 2003/174/EC) which has replaced the Committee on Employment. Facilitating ongoing consultation between the Council, the Commission and the social partners on economic, social and employment questions, it meets at least once a year and one of its meetings must be held before the Spring European Council.

Formalising a process that had been developing since 1997, the Summit now officially consists of the current EU Council presidency and the two subsequent presidencies, the Commission and the social partners. The three Council presidencies are normally represented by the heads of state or government and the ministers in charge of employment and social affairs; equally, the Commission has two representatives, who are usually its President and the Commissioner responsible for employment and social affairs. The social partners’ members are divided into two delegations of equal size, comprising 10 workers’ representatives and 10 employers’ representatives, with special attention being paid to the need to ensure a balanced participation between men and women. Each group consists of delegates of European cross-industry organisations either representing general interests or more specific interests of supervisory and managerial staff and small and medium-sized businesses at European level. Technical coordination is provided for the workers’ delegation by ETUC and for the employers’ delegation by UNICE. Following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the role of the Tripartite Social Summit for Growth and Employment is now acknowledged under Article 152 TFEU.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament has taken the view that social dialogue is an essential element in the traditions of the Member States and has called for a greater role for the ‘trialogue’ at European level. Its Committee on Employment and Social Affairs has extended frequent invitations to the social partners at EU level to present their views before a report or opinion on any relevant issues is delivered. It has also often reminded the Commission of the need for a coherent industrial policy at European level, in which the social partners should play a key role. The Lisbon Treaty has introduced a clear right for Parliament to be informed about the implementation of collective agreements concluded at Union level (Article 155 TFEU) and about the initiatives taken by the Commission to encourage cooperation between the Member States under Article 156 TFEU, including matters relating to the right of association and collective bargaining between employers and workers.

In the midst of the economic crisis, Parliament has reiterated the fact that social dialogue is vital in order to achieve the employment targets set out in the EU 2020 Strategy (2009/2220(INI)). In January 2012, it stressed that, in focusing on fiscal consolidation, the Annual Growth Survey’s recommendations would hamper not only job creation and social welfare, but also social dialogue as such. Furthermore, in its resolution on the 2017 European Semester cycle[2], Parliament once again stressed the importance of social dialogue and called for reinforcement of the role of social partners in the new economic governance process. Since 2014, their involvement at EU level has increased somewhat, although the picture remains disparate at national level and at both levels social partners consider their involvement as being informative rather than genuinely consultative. Regarding the economic adjustment programmes in the countries most affected by the crisis, Parliament, in its resolution of 13 March 2014 on employment and social aspects of the role and operations of the Troika (the European Central Bank, the Commission and the International Monetary Fund) with regard to euro-area-programme countries, stressed that the social partners at national level should have been consulted or involved in the initial design of programmes.

Parliament reiterated its stance in its resolution of 19 January 2017 on a European Pillar of Social Rights[3], calling on the Commission to step up concrete support for strengthening and respecting social dialogue at all levels and in all sectors.

[1]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0010.

[2]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0039.

[3]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0010.

Marion Schmid-Drüner