In March 2015, 30 years after the beginning of the so-called "Val Duchesse" process, involving European social partners in building the internal market, the European Commission together with the social partners organised a high-level conference to kick off a "new start for social dialogue".
The meeting launched a renewed partnership between social partners and the EU institutions to focus on a number of priorities to promote growth and create jobs.
Over the last twelve months, the Commission, the Council and the social partners have delivered on this new start through a number of concrete actions.
What was agreed upon last year?
The high level conference gathered the leaders of the EU institutions and the European and national social partners at cross-industry and sectoral levels.
President Juncker highlighted that the new start for social dialogue should take place at both EU and national level, and in the context of both tri-partite and bi-partite social dialogue.
Social partners and the Commission agreed that the new start for social dialogue should aim for (1) more substantial involvement of the social partners in the European Semester, (2) a stronger emphasis on capacity building of national social partners, (3) a strengthened involvement of social partners in EU policy- and law-making and (4) a clearer relation between social partners' agreements and the Better Regulation agenda.
How were those commitments implemented?
Two Thematic Groups have been established to build on the commitments made and to monitor the follow-up to the high-level conference. Representatives from the social partners (at EU and national level and at cross-industry and sectoral level), attachés from the past, present and future presidencies (Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovakia and Malta), the Council Secretariat, Eurofound and the Commission services also attended.
Thematic Group 1 focused on social dialogue, economic governance and capacity building. It assessed the involvement and positions of the national and European social partner organisations in the assessment, design, agreement and implementation of semester-related reforms and policies at national level.
Main conclusions were:
- The involvement of social partners at EU level has significantly improved in recent years, but there is room for further improvement at national level,
- The involvement of national social partners in the preparation of the National Reform Programmes and in the design and implementation of relevant policy reforms could be reinforced while respecting national practices.
- Annexing the views of social partners to the National Reform Programmes was considered a good practice.
The Thematic Group also discussed the functioning of social dialogue in Member States. The main conclusions were:
- A well-functioning social dialogue requires appropriate settings for both bipartite and tripartite social dialogue.
- A suitable institutional framework for social partners to engage in bipartite and tripartite dialogue is essential.
- There is also a need to ensure adequate financial resources and support for capacity building activities, primarily via social partners and national resources, but also possibly through the use of EU funds.
Thematic Group 2 focused on social dialogue, policy-making and law-making, specifically the involvement of social partners in policy- and law-making in the context of initiatives in the social and employment area as well as in other policy areas.
Main conclusions were:
- Tripartite fora such as the Tripartite Social Summit, the Macro-Economic Dialogue and the Social Dialogue Committee were and remain the key fora for exchanges with EU institutions and social partners. However, the functioning and impact of these fora should be enhanced, where possible.
- The need to make use of the expertise of social partners when developing EU initiatives, in particular in areas beyond the Treaty-based consultation of social partners.
- Social partners and the EU institutions, while respecting their respective responsibilities and autonomy, should support synergies between their work programmes in order to enhance delivery on the goals that they share.
The Thematic Group also discussed the concept of representativeness at EU level, in particular in the cases where social partners requested their agreements to be implemented through EU law.
Main conclusions were:
- The concept of representativeness at both national and European levels and its implications in terms of policy- and law- making at EU level should be examined.
- In particular, representativeness checks need to ensure that EU social dialogue relies on recognised social partners at national level across Member States.
How were social partners involved in the European Semester?
In the framework of the European Semester, the Commission reinforced the consultation of social partners in various areas:
- The Commission consulted the European social partners on their views and the challenges ahead before the publication of the 2016 Annual Growth Survey (meeting on 23 September).
- The Commission, through its Representations in the Member States, stepped up and encouraged discussions with national social partners on the Country Reports and Country-Specific Recommendations at key milestones of the Semester.
How was the capacity of the social partners reinforced?
In October 2015, the Commission organised a workshop for managing authorities and social partners on the use of the ESF for the capacity-building of the social partners.
A mapping of ESF support to capacity-building of social partners in both the past and current financing periods is being prepared with the managing authorities and social partners and should be available by mid-2016.
How were the social partners involved in the making of EU employment and social policies?
The Commission launched a first stage consultation of the social partners, as foreseen by Article 154 TFEU, on "information and consultation of workers" in April 2015 and on "work-life balance" in November 2015.
Three dedicated hearings with cross-industry and sectoral social partners were held since March 2015 on the long-term unemployment recommendation, on Labour Mobility and on the planned New Skills Agenda. The social partners are also invited to play a key role in the consultation, which was just launched, on the European Pillar of Social Rights.
What about other EU policies?
A more systematic consultation beyond employment and social policies of the social partners in EU policy- and law-making is pursued (i.e. beyond the formal procedure applicable to social policy initiatives referred to in Article 153 TFEU):
- First Vice-President Timmermans met the EU social partners ahead of the adoption of the Better Regulation package.
- Vice-President Katainen organised a discussion on the Investment Plan.
- Vice-President Ansip met with the EU social partners and invited them to include the Digital Single Market in their dialogue at EU level.
- Vice-President Sefčovič met twice with EU social partners to discuss the Energy Union and how the social partners can contribute to accommodating the impact of the energy transition, which will require among others retraining or up-skilling of employees in certain sectors.
- In the field of trade policy, the Commission is committed to enhancing consultation of social partners on the possible impacts of trade and investment on jobs, in particular, in the framework of Sustainability Impact Assessments.
What is the state of play on the bi-partite social dialogue?
EU cross-industry social partners presented on 14 July 2015 their in-depth employment analysis and joint work programme 2015-2017. Of their eight priorities, social partners have started their negotiations on an autonomous framework agreement on active ageing (priority 1) and have created a working group to look at the implementation by their members of their previous autonomous framework agreements with a view to promoting capacity-building and better implementation of outcomes (priority 8). EU cross-industry social partners also foresee the adoption of joint conclusions on work-life balance (priority 2). Exchanges of views and joint activities are foreseen on the five remaining priorities of mobility and migration (priority 3), investment and job creation (priority 4), digitalisation and skills (priority 5), active labour market policies (priority 6) and youth employment (priority 7).
EU sectoral social partners, active in 43 different sectoral social dialogue committees representing 75% of the work force, and supported by the European Commission, have continued to deliver on their respective joint work programmes. This includes the preparation of common products such as joint opinions, declarations or projects on themes related to job creation and job matching, skills and apprenticeships, mobility and migration, energy and climate change, digitalisation and the collaborative economy. All these themes are at the core of the EU priorities and in line with President Juncker political guidelines. EU sectoral social partners have also signed agreements for which they have requested implementation through EU legislation in two sectors (sea-fishing in 2013 and central administrations in 2015). Social partners in two other sectors (hairdressers and maritime transport) are also negotiating two further agreements.
What is next for social dialogue?
Important progress has been achieved in implementing the commitments made one year ago as part of the 'new start for social dialogue'.
The Commission will continue these efforts in the coming years, guided by the following two main principles:
1) EU social dialogue cannot deliver without a well-functioning and effective social dialogue at national level. This requires a conducive institutional setting.
2) Tripartite concertation, involving public authorities, needs to build upon a strong bipartite social dialogue. This is valid at EU level as well as in the Member States.
 The so-called prerogative budget lines for social dialogue provide more than 30 million euros a year of funding to promote European social dialogue at cross-industry, sector and company level.