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European Commission - Fact Sheet

More efficient decision-making in social policy – Questions and Answers

Strasbourg, 16 April 2019

More efficient decision-making in social policy – Questions and Answers

Why does the EU need more efficient decision-making in social policy?

In times of rapid, sometimes fundamental change, it is more important than ever that the EU, alongside the Member States, is able to formulate swiftly policy responses. In his State of the Union address of September 2018, President Juncker announced that it is the right time to take stock of the framework for EU decision‑making set out in the Treaties for different key policy areas, to make sure that the EU can use all the tools at its disposal and maximise its added value.

The vast majority of EU decisions in the field of social policy are adopted under qualified majority voting and the ordinary legislative procedure.

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This has allowed the European Union to develop a solid body of rules (a social "acquis") ranging from equality between women and men, health and safety at work, labour mobility, the rights of posted workers, working conditions, and information and consultation of workers.

However, in certain areas of social policy, decisions must be taken by the Council with unanimous agreement, with the European Parliament often only consulted. For these specific areas, decision-making based on unanimity on the one hand, and the combination of voting rules in the same policy field on the other hand have led to unevenness in the development of the social policy acquis. While protection standards are high overall, there are protection gaps in some instances.

Qualified majority voting is based on a culture of compromise and allows for outcomes that reflect the interests of the Union as a whole. Flexible, efficient and quick decision-making has allowed the EU to become a global reference and standard‑setter in policy areas such as health and safety at work. Making decisions by qualified majority can be a powerful catalyst to engage Member States in finding a positive outcome that is acceptable to all. Unanimity voting does not provide for these incentives, since its main characteristic is that, in effect, each Member State has a veto. This increases the risk of the decision-making process being severely slowed down.

Lastly, in the social policy areas still subject to voting by unanimity, the European Parliament does not have an equal, prominent role as co-decision maker. However, a general case can be made – especially in the social policy field – for the European Parliament to have a greater say. Members of the European Parliament represent the citizens who are directly benefitting from EU social policy and should have a say in its formulation through their elected representatives.

What does the Commission propose in order to make decision-making on social policy more efficient?

With its Communication published today, the Commission is opening a debate on making more use of qualified majority voting and the ordinary legislative procedure in social policy. Through successive Treaty changes, Member States have gradually moved towards increased decision-making by qualified majority, which has become the standard rule. However, existing Treaty provisions, which allow for more flexibility and efficiency remain largely unused. This is the case with Article 153(2) TFEU and Article 48(7) TEU. In its Communication, the Commission indicates where it sees an added value in using such mechanisms in the near future to improve efficiency and drive better results.

The Commission is launching a debate on using the existing possibilities in the Treaties to facilitate decision-making on non-discrimination and the adoption of recommendations on social security and social protection of workers in the near future. This would help to develop equal protection against discrimination and to modernise our social protection systems, boosting their capacity to deal with the changes and challenges ahead, and supporting convergence between systems.

What is Qualified Majority Voting?

Qualified majority voting goes beyond the simple majority rule requiring reaching more than 50 % of the votes cast. As abstentions are not counted as votes in favour, obtaining a majority requires Member States to be explicitly in favour of a proposal and cast a positive vote. To reach a qualified majority, two conditions need to be met:

  • 55 % of the Member States vote in favour; and
  • the proposal is supported by Member States representing at least 65 % of the EU population.

Why does the Commission make the case for using the passerelle clause to facilitate decision-making on non-discrimination and the adoption of recommendations on social security and social protection of workers?

Non-discrimination

There is comprehensive EU legal protection on gender and race equality. But due to constraints related to unanimity, equal treatment on grounds of religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation is not ensured to the same degree.

Equality is one of the EU's fundamental values. Discrimination has no place in the Union. Yet, a Eurobarometer surveyshows that 12 % of people in the EU consider themselves part of a group at risk of discrimination. Around one in five respondents reports personal experience of discrimination or harassment in the previous 12 months.

For the individuals concerned, any denial of rights due to discrimination can lead to material and/or non‑material damage, e.g. a loss of earnings and/or poorer health. For society, discrimination can have a detrimental impact on GDP and tax revenue as well as social cohesion.

Social security and social protection of workers

As labour markets evolve, social protection systems need reform at national level so that our social model remains fit for purpose, no‑one is left behind and people and businesses in the EU make the most of the changing world of work.

Demographic changes, such as population ageing, lower birth rates and longer life expectancy, will affect Member States' capacity to guarantee adequate social protection. Today, four working people support one pensioner. In 2060, the ratio will be two to one. On top of this, the world of work is radically changing. The emergence of a variety of employment relationships, exacerbated by technological changes and digital platforms, has already created gaps in social protection coverage. If fewer people pay into the system, that puts the social and economic sustainability of our social security systems at risk.

In addition, the future world of work will require massive investments in life-long learning, training, up- and reskilling, which national social protection systems insufficiently cater for today.

Adopting recommendations in this area by qualified majority would help Member States to make the most of the opportunities brought about by current changes.

Why does the Commission not propose to do the same for the other?

The Commission has looked at each case based on its merits.

For the other three areas under consideration, there seems to be no clear case at present:

  • Conditions of employment for third-country nationals: there is already an extensive EU legal framework adopted under qualified majority voting through another article (Article 79(2) TFUE) dedicated to migration, and legally residing third country nationals are also covered as other workers in EU labour legislation adopted under Article 153.
  • Dismissals protection: there is already targeted protection for the most vulnerable workers (e.g. pregnant women) under EU law, and for the rest, there are strong links with, and diversity between, national systems, including the role of social dialogue.
  • Representation and collective defence of interest: there is no added value for the EU to move away from unanimity on these sensitive matters which have a lot to do with national rules and traditions, notably the role of social partners.

The Commission remains ready to review its assessment in the light of changing circumstances and the discussion which should follow this Communication.

Will this take away decision-making powers of EU Member States or affect the role of social partners?

Moving to qualified majority voting would not modify either the EU's or the Member States' competence on social policy. It would only provide Member States a way to exercise more efficiently their already pooled sovereignty at EU level, granting them the strength to address shared challenges. The scope and conditions for the exercise of EU powers do not change.

The role of the social partners in shaping legislation on social policy will remain unaffected. As required by Article 154 TFEU, the Commission would continue to consult social partners before submitting proposals in the social policy field. It is important to note that, to the extent that qualified majority would apply in the areas concerned by Article 153 TFEU, it would also apply for, and facilitate, the implementation of social partners' agreements by means of Council decisions under Article 155 TFEU.

Moving to qualified majority voting would in any case be a democratic decision entirely under the Member States' control. It was their unanimous decision to include the passerelle clauses in the EU Treaties. It would take another unanimous decision of the European Council (or the Council) to activate the passerelle clauses. In addition, in the case of the general passerelle clause, any national Parliament may object to its use and the European Parliament has to give its consent.

What is the legal basis for moving to qualified majority voting?

Changing to qualified majority voting or the ordinary legislative procedure in the areas of non-discrimination and social security and social protection of workers is possible using Article 48(7) of the Treaty on European Union. No EU Treaty change is necessary. The European Council would have to decide by unanimity to activate this clause, with no objection from national parliaments, and with the European Parliament's consent.

Article 153(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union also contains a specific passerelle clause for social policy. At present, there seems to be no clear case for activating this specific passerelle clause.

What are the next steps?

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 or the ordinary legislative procedure in social policy on the basis of this Communication.

MEMO/19/2120

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