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Mr. László ANDOR

EU Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion

"Celebrating 20 years of social dialogue"

Conference of EU Social Partners

Warsaw, 24 November 2011

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be here with you today to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Social Partners' Agreement. The topic of European Social Dialogue is particularly relevant in these times of significant economic and social challenges.

The Social Partners' Agreement, otherwise known as the Social Protocol, was the foundation for the European Social Dialogue that we have today in Articles 154 and 155 of the Lisbon Treaty.

This was the first European level agreement between the cross-industry social partners and possibly its most significant. As a contribution to the inter-governmental conference that was preparing the Maastricht Treaty, it paved the way for a much stronger role for the social partners in formulating and implementing Community social and employment policy.

Its particular innovation, as we now know, was to propose a specific consultation and negotiation procedure which gave the European Social Partners a stronger role in framing and applying Community social policy. It also provided the Social Partners with a greater legitimacy through their new right to be consulted on proposed Community action, and to request the Council to implement their agreements through Directives. We now call this 'Regulation by social partners for social partners', as the social partners decide on the content of their negotiations and on how it is to be implemented.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Why is this important, and why do we need European Social Dialogue?

The countries of Europe have developed a distinctive way of organising their societies and economies, which has become known as the “European social model”.

There is general acceptance that this model at least strives to include sustained economic growth, a high and rising standard of living, high levels of employment, high-quality education, comprehensive welfare and social protection, low levels of inequality and high levels of solidarity, and – crucially in the current context - an important role for representatives of workers and employers and the dialogue between them.

Social dialogue forms part of the European social model partly because it reflects the democratic principle that representative associations should be able to express their views and to be consulted by and hold dialogue with the public authorities. It also reflects the view that it is fair that workers and employers should be involved in governance of the issues that affect them closely.

Another reason is that social dialogue brings concrete benefits, and not just for the organisations involved. The social partners have unrivalled knowledge and experience of the realities of the employment and social situation ‘on the ground’, and consulting and listening to them can therefore improve governance.

Furthermore, the social partners are uniquely well placed to address work-related issues – such as employment, working conditions, working time, equality, health and safety and training - through the dialogue and negotiation that characterise their relationships. Notably, by reaching agreements they can achieve compromises and balance their interests in a way that legislation often cannot.

Social dialogue’s benefits have long been widely recognised – if to varying degrees – in the Member States. As the European economy and labour market have become more integrated, and the EU has developed an enhanced employment and social policy role, the EU institutions and Member States have increasingly taken the view that similar benefits can be achieved through social dialogue at European level.

Indeed, we have to recognise that there have been significant achievements. The most concrete and high profile outcomes of social dialogue are the various joint texts agreed by the social partners. Up to now, 650 joint texts have been produced by the EU level social dialogue. You may be surprised to know that 89% of these texts have been produced by the Sectoral Social Dialogue, with the remaining 11% by the cross-industry social dialogue.

However, I have a slight regret that only 3% of these texts are actual agreements, whether they be agreements implemented by Directive or autonomous agreements implemented by the social partners themselves. The overwhelming majority of these texts are either process-oriented texts or joint opinions and tools.

Of course, the Commission recognises that a full agreement is not always the most appropriate outcome of a negotiation, particularly at sectoral level. We also recognise that a major part of the value of social dialogue is simply the fact that social partners talk to each other – the contacts, the confidence and mutual trust, the exchanges of views and information and the experience of working together. Nevertheless, we can always hope for more.

In this context, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate the cross-industry social partners for agreeing to start negotiations on the revision of the Working Time Directive. As you know, the Commission has invested much time and effort into the revision of this piece of legislation for some years, but those efforts came to nothing two years ago when the Council and the Parliament were unable to reach agreement despite all our efforts. So now it is up to you.

Can you succeed where the Commission, the Member States and the Parliament have failed? We sincerely hope so, because the resulting agreement could very well be the most important agreement you have ever reached. I know you will do your utmost to achieve this, and we all wish you well in this endeavour. This is very strong confidence in the potential and importance of European social dialogue. We will of course do everything in our power to provide all the logistical support you need.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Finally, I would like to say a word about the current situation, which as we all know, is extremely serious. Many Member States have to implement austerity programmes to reduce their indebtedness; economic growth is weak and likely to decelerate further; employment is a major concern, with high structural unemployment, and the reappearance of high rates of long-term unemployment, which is leading to rising levels of precariousness. Most of the new jobs being created are either temporary or part-time. Also particularly worrying is the high rate of youth unemployment, with the risk of the emergence of a lost generation.

All of this, of course, leads to increasing social unrest and the threat to society which that represents.

Of course, reforms in the labour market, as well as other reforms, can, to some extent, relieve the labour market effects of less favourable growth developments. But they can only be successful if new jobs are created.

Both stability and growth are part of a successful strategy for recovery and will trigger necessary reforms in labour markets, public finances and pension systems. These reforms demand responsibility and solidarity and should be based on fair and inclusive policies, building on the strengths of our European social model.

We need the social partners’ support in order to implement the necessary reforms. They can produce an effective negotiated response to the challenges resulting from the crisis, the move to a knowledge economy and the transition to a low-carbon economy.

This will boost commitment and trigger real ownership. Social dialogue must deliver, at EU and national level, be it in the framework of the future modernisation of social protection, the implementation of flexicurity principles, anticipation of skills, labour law, restructuring, youth unemployment, demographic change and poverty — or any other policy initiative the Commission will put forward. A coordinated and fair response that ensures social cohesion calls for more and for better social dialogue.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This conference will look back at the achievements of the past, but will also look forward to the future. The way before us is neither simple nor easy. I am confident that you will rise to the challenge, as you have always done and I wish you well in your discussions.

Thank you for your attention.

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