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 Brussels, 5 February 1997

Facts about the 'Social Chapter'

What is the 'Social Chapter'?

The 'Social Chapter' is another name for the Protocol on Social Policy and the Agreement on Social Policy annexed to the Treaty on European Union (Maastricht Treaty).

In essence, it provides a legislative tool by extending in an extremely limited way, qualified majority voting to some areas of social policy. It also retains unanimity for the most sensitive policies and explicitly excludes certain things, for example, there is no question of European legislation on minimum pay or trade union rights.

What are the key features of the 'Social Chapter'?

  1. ) In relation to the existing social provisions contained in the Treaty of Rome and the Single European act, qualified majority voting is extended only to :
    •     - Equal opportunities;
    •     -  Working conditions;
    •     -  Information and consultation;
    •     - Integration of those excluded from the labour market.
  2. 2) Unanimity is retained for :
    •     - Social security;
    •     - Dismissals;
    •     - Employee representation;
    •     - Employment of third-country nationals legally residing in the European Union;
    •     - Financial contributions for promotion of employment and job-creation.
  3. 3) Pay and trade union rights are specifically excluded from the ambit of the 'Social Chapter'.

    Apart from a modest extension of qualified majority voting, what else is in the 'Social Chapter'?

    The 'Social Chapter' has changed, in a fundamental way, the legislative process. Any initiative from the Commission has to go through a two stage consultation with the two sides of industry, before it even gets to the stage of being a legislative proposal. By the time a measure comes to the Council of Ministers, it has been thoroughly talked out. The views of employers and unions alike are well known to all involved. Thus, the 'Social Chapter' imposes a new discipline on legislators. They are able to take decisions with full knowledge of the views of management and labour.

    So, are there two different legal bases for the pursuit of social policy at European level ?

    Yes - one applies across the Union and is based on the social provisions of the Treaty of Rome (Articles 117-127) and the other applies to 14 Member States and is based on the Agreement on Social Policy.

    What about the United Kingdom and its "opt-out" from the 'Social Chapter'?

    The UK has always participated fully in European social policy. It signed the Treaty of Rome and the Single European Act and has always applied well and effectively all European social legislation adopted to date, with the exception of the European Works Councils' Directive and the Directive concerning Parental Leave. These Directives are the only pieces of European legislation which have been adopted under the 'Social Chapter'. It is worth noting that in the case of the Works Councils' Directive, European legislation has been voluntarily embraced by many large UK companies because they consider that informing and consulting their employees is good for business For example, United Biscuits, Coats Viyella, National Westminster Bank, etc..

    European social legislation is not a rigid, harmonising force but a flexible set of minimum standards compatible with distinct and different models of social and industrial organisation. The UK has always shown full respect for this but has had its own, distinctive labour market policy when compared with its European partners. So much for the notion that European legislation imposes rigid harmonisation!

    Is there any evidence that UK is facing an implacable will to legislate from its EU partners?

    The objective evidence says no! The 'Social Chapter' does not constitute a blank cheque for a heavy legislative agenda, which would see the UK outvoted and forced into legislative rigidities to which it is opposed. The 'Social Chapter' is emphatically not a legislative agenda. It is a legal mechanism. There is no presumption in favour of legislation. It is neutral in that sense. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage that there will be any new wave of social legislation in the future since we are now in a period of consolidation and implementation of existing legislation.

    What about legislation in the pipeline on the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases and the rights of part-time workers?

    There are some pieces of legislation or potential legislation winding their way through the Social Protocol process which date from many years back. At the Employment and Social Affairs Council on 2 December 1996, Ministers reached political agreement on the proposal for a Directive on "sharing" the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases. The Council cannot formally adopt a Common Position as the European Parliament has not yet given its opinion on this proposal. The Social Partners at European level are currently negotiating on the issue of flexibility in working time and security for workers.

    So much for the 'Social Chapter' but what about the 'raft' of European social legislation which already exists and is choking businesses to death?

    There is no mass of legislation emanating from Brussels, choking businesses to death. Nothing could be further than the truth. The bulk of legislation which regulates the labour market is of national origin. European laws simply set down minimum standards for health and safety at work and deal with matters such as the right to free movement of workers, equal rights for men and women at work and some labour law which deals with certain rights in specific situations such as collective dismissals, or where a company changes hands or when an employer becomes bankrupt.

    What are the Commission's plans for the 'Social Chapter' at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC)?

    The European Commission is committed to returning to a single legal base for social policy matters. Its opinion for IGC states that there should be a common base of social rights for all Union citizens. In order to achieve this, "the Social Protocol must be integrated into the Treaty".

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