Don’t just listen!
Although trade unions can influence EU economic policies more and more, they are taking little advantage of it (yet)

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker arrives at the Europa building

Read this article in German.

When it comes to the subject of ‘social Europe’, trade unions rarely receive invitations along the lines of: ‘The door is open. We are waiting for your contributions.’ Yet that is what the the European Commission said in 2015 when it began to address civil society, and trade unions in particular, with the ‘European Pillar of Social Tights’. What was that all about?

In 2015, the new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his wish to upgrade the EU to a ‘triple A on social issues’. Juncker went on to call for the European social dialogue to be rebooted, and in his speech on the State of the European Union, he announced a new EU pillar of social rights to strengthen social standards in Europe.

European consultations of questionable value

Following the Barroso Commission’s general neglect of socio-political concerns, what more could trade unions have wished for: They were finally requested to express their views on a comprehensive social initiative for Europe! Unfortunately, however, the European Commission presented hardly any substantive content or even broad outlines for trade unions to work with. Even the term ‘pillar’ remained vague.

Of course trade unions had no lack of ideas and demands. They discussed wish lists of everything the pillar should include or deliberated about specific areas within the EU’s competences in which binding measures could even be agreed. All that was fine: Post-Barroso, there was a lot to do. But those familiar with the EU Commission’s highly structured working methods in specific departments understood very well that stabs in the dark had no chance of being adopted.

Essentially, it is possible to influence and pressure one’s own national government at the highest level of the EU.

In the end, it seems that the European Commission was more concerned with the consultation process itself and the opportunity to publicly discuss social issues in Europe, than with receiving suggestions of real substance. Considering the efforts and expectations of the trade unions, the European pillar of social rights proclaimed in November 2017 was disappointing. Its 20 principles were not binding. Nor were they accompanied by much new legislation. That missed opportunity gave rise to frustration and criticism that the hearings and consultations had just been for show.

A new atmosphere for dialoguing with the EU Commission

Nevertheless, the Juncker Commission must be credited with opening a few more doors for trade unions. For instance, the Commission’s public statements have begun to note the social partners’ central role at the European level and in member states (without specifying what exactly this might mean).

Individual departments of the Commission appear to have become more open to dialogue with social partners and social associations. They are now invited to official hearings on proposed legislation and attend informal meetings to evaluate European social policy. There is clearly a new atmosphere for dialogue that trade unions, social associations and organised civil society can take advantage of.

Since 2015, the social partners have also been more deeply involved in the ‘European Semester’, which has become the hub for economic policy coordination. The Semester annually reviews major economic, labour market and socio-political developments in member states, resulting in the EU Council of Ministers’ important country-specific recommendations.  

In order to better integrate the social partners, some methods were streamlined and new procedures involving social partners have been introduced or formalised. In addition, key documents like the Annual Growth Survey and the European Commission’s country-specific recommendations are now being published earlier, giving the relevant actors more time to examine them.

Even more important are the preliminary consultations that the Commission has been holding since 2016 with European and national social partners with regards to the country-specific reports. Commission representatives are also more disposed to make time to discuss individual country reports with trade union representatives alone. This shows that, essentially, it is possible to influence and pressure one’s own national government at the highest level of the EU.

Trade unions, seize your chance!

In a climate that is generally more conducive to dialogue, the European Semester – the most important economic management process – has become much more accessible. There has been steady growth in the social- and labour policy content of the country-specific recommendations over the past few years, which means trade unions and social associations enjoy a greater range of specific opportunities to provide substantive input.

Efforts to regulate markets, establish rules, ensure fair labour practices and address socio-political concerns are outgunned.

All this means that trade unions have new small and big windows of opportunity to be heard, particularly in European Commission procedures. I can only make an appeal to the trade unions: Use these opportunities! With both the European Commission and your own governments.

But is that enough? It appears that more opportunities to participate do not necessarily promote participation. Many trade unions lack the capacity to continuously present positions as well as legally and empirically sound concepts in high-level consultation processes – and in the Commission’s language and style.

On the other hand, these specific capacities are also being eroded and weakened in member states by other EU policies, particularly austerity and structural reforms, as well as internal market policy, thus threatening the trade unions’ very existence. Finally, although the European Commission accepts trade union positions in a friendly and respectful manner, in the end, they have hardly any effect on European policies.

It is therefore completely understandable that trade unions carefully select which activities should receive their limited material and political resources. Trade unions do not always want, or are able, to take advantage of the European Commission’s requests for consultations. Although the Commission has made funds available to enhance national trade unions’ collaboration in the European Semester, some unions still need convincing. In this respect, capacity building is particularly important for the newer EU members of Southeast Europe, so that their local trade unions can more effectively contribute to policies made in Brussels.

Based on their experience with EU initiatives, particularly during the economic and financial crisis, trade unions tend to fend off or at least be sceptical about collaborating with the Commission: EU treaties clearly favour market-based and competition-oriented approaches. Efforts to regulate markets, establish rules, ensure fair labour practices and address socio-political concerns are outgunned. Only new, more progressive political majorities in the EU and its member states could change this. Hold your breath for the European elections in 2019.

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