In his 2018 State of the Union speech, President Juncker announced a comprehensive review of all passerelle clauses provided for by the EU Treaties. As a result, three Communications have already been adopted: on common foreign and security policy (September 2018), on taxation (January 2019) and on energy and climate (April 2019). The Communication on the passerelle clauses in social policy is the fourth one.
Most social policy areas, where the EU has powers to act, are already subject to qualified majority voting. This has allowed putting in place a comprehensive social "acquis" over the years, with significant further steps under this Commission. A very limited number of areas, however, still requires unanimity among EU Member States and special legislative procedures, in which the European Parliament does not have an equal role as the Council as co-decision maker.
Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue, Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union, Valdis Dombrovskis, said: “To respond to rapid change in society and labour markets, the EU-level will need timely, flexible and efficient decision-making for social policy. Today's Communication opens the debate on how we can use existing provisions in the Treaties with that aim. It focuses on cases where there is clear EU added value, aiming to foster a culture of compromise and decision-making that responds to citizens' needs for a fair single market.”
Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen said: “In their diversity, Member States are ultimately all striving for a fairer society based on equal opportunities and a future-proof social market economy. As the world of work is changing, we need to be able to make full use of the instruments in our toolbox to tackle our shared challenges.”
The fact that there is voting by qualified majority and unanimity in certain related policy domains has led to an uneven development of the social policy acquis. While protection standards are high and comprehensive overall, there are gaps in protection in some instances. Moreover, special legislative procedures do not give an equal, prominent role as co-decision maker to the European Parliament, which is often only consulted in those cases, even though it represents the citizens directly benefitting from EU social policy. In times of rapid, sometimes fundamental change, it is more important than ever that the EU is able to swiftly find effective policy responses.
With this Communication, the Commission is launching a debate on an enhanced use of qualified majority voting in social policy, rendering decision-making more timely, flexible and efficient where an EU competence already exists. This possibility is provided for in the EU Treaties for several specific areas (see background) through so-called passerelle clauses. These clauses allow for a shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting under certain circumstances.
As a first step, looking at the merits and challenges of each case, the Commission proposes to consider the use of the passerelle to facilitate decision-making on non-discrimination. This would help further develop equal protection against discrimination. The use of the passerelle clause could also be considered in the near future to adopt recommendations in the area of social security and social protection of workers. This would help to guide the process of modernisation of and convergence between social protection systems.
Moving to qualified majority voting does not change who does what. The scope of and conditions for the exercise of EU powers remain intact. For example, Member States will continue to be responsible to determine the features of their own social protection systems. Social partners will keep their competences and national social dialogue traditions remain untouched. Union action will continue to focus on where it is necessary and can deliver clear benefits, as foreseen in the Treaties.
To activate this passerelle clause, according to Article 48(7) of the Treaty on European Union, the European Council would have to decide by unanimity, with no objection from national parliaments, and with the European Parliament's consent.
The Commission invites the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, social partners and all stakeholders to engage in an open debate on an enhanced use of qualified majority voting and the ordinary legislative procedure in social policy on the basis of the Communication.
A limited number of areas in the EU social policy field are still subject to unanimity in the Council and special legislative procedures where the European Parliament does not have an equal role as co-decision maker.
These areas are:
- non-discrimination based on different grounds (gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, and sexual orientation);
- social security and social protection of workers (outside cross-border situations);
- protection of workers against dismissals;
- representation and collective defence of the interests of workers and employers; and
- conditions of employment for third-country nationals legally residing in the EU.
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