EESC calls for enhanced social dialogue in the EU

Social dialogue is a pillar of the European social model that can be used to swiftly respond to crises and deal with their consequences. Yet in many countries it is still fragmented and takes place only occasionally

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) threw its support behind fostering effective social dialogue in EU Member States as it plays a key role in shaping economic, labour and social policies that create better living and working conditions across the EU. It is thus necessary for promoting and achieving economic sustainability.

Countries with well-established social dialogue mechanisms also respond better and more quickly to crises, including those of global proportions like the current COVID-19 pandemic, according to the EESC's opinion Social dialogue as an important pillar of economic sustainability and the resilience of economies taking into account the influence of lively public debate in the Member States.

The opinion, drafted at the request of the German EU Presidency, aims to give an overview of the practice of social dialogue in the Member States, examining it in the context of past crises. It also explores how the concept of social dialogue, and especially its tripartite form, which involves public authorities, can go beyond collective bargaining and how it is a key instrument for sound governance of any process of change.

The opinion served as the basis for the conference “Social dialogue as an important pillar of economic sustainability and the resilience of economies in Europe", organised by the German Presidency on 10 November, which involved the EESC president Christa Schweng, former EESC member Vladimíra Drbalová and current EESC member Cinzia Del Rio.

Ms Drbalová (Employers' Group) and Ms Del Rio (Workers' Group) drafted the opinion. It was adopted at the EESC's inaugural plenary session held in late October, where it was presented by Ms Del Rio and Réné Blijlevens, who took over from Ms Drbalová.

In the EESC's view, the lessons learnt from previous crises indicate that prompt social partner involvement and political support from the authorities are among the key factors for successfully dealing with the immediate consequences of a crisis. Based on that, the EESC lists below several recommendations for sound post-pandemic management in the near future:

  • active social partner involvement in designing and implementing national recovery plans to enhance the quality of policy design, engage social partners in implementation and build trust;
  • better cooperation between the social partners and the European Commission in ensuring the consistent use of European resources on the basis of medium- to long-term planning;
  • specific action, including an ad hoc temporary financial instrument to support social partners' capacity-building needs and help manage the consequences of the pandemic;
  • sound corporate governance, including in restructuring processes resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, based on social dialogue, collective bargaining and respect for workers' rights to information, consultation and participation, which can make it possible to meet positive economic targets, as well as social and environmental goals.

However, to be effective, social dialogue must include representative and legitimate social partners as well as the governments committed to engaging in it. It is equally essential to respect social partners' autonomy and freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Well-functioning institutions in an enabling legal and institutional framework are also paramount for supporting social dialogue processes.

The role of the State in tripartite mechanisms is crucial and cannot be passive. It is responsible for creating proper conditions and the legal and institutional framework for such consultation and the political and civil climate which enable representative and legitimate social partners to participate, recognising their role, the EESC said, warning that in some EU countries, social dialogue processes have been weakened and the autonomy of the social partners undermined.

The EESC also stressed that the EU should take strong and decisive action by adopting a more supportive approach with regard to consultation practices.

European social dialogue is an inalienable component of the European social model and is enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, supported by EU legislation and recognised in the European Pillar of Social Rights. The EESC encourages the European social partners to exploit all of the potential that the Treaty offers them by engaging in negotiations to address new topics and rapid changes in the labour market.

According to the EESC, the social partners should be involved in the European Semester of economic governance, in drawing up the current recovery and resilience plans, and especially in developing and implementing employment, social and, where relevant, economic reforms and policies.

We need a binding consultation mechanism for social partners in the European Semester. Nowadays, bearing in mind the economic and social impact of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to involve social partners in drawing up recovery and resilience plans, including government reporting tools, Ms Del Rio told the plenary.

We need to realise the full potential of social dialogue. We have tools for it, we just need to use them properly, Mr Blijlevens added, quoting Ms Drbalová.

However, the evidence gathered over the years shows that consultation of social partners in relation to economic governance is left to the discretion of governments in office.

Another prerequisite for European social dialogue to be effective and remain useful is for it to address new topics and changes in the labour market. With new, non-standard forms of work, a growing number of workers are not covered by collective bargaining or protective legislation. If social dialogue played a stronger role in this area, this could help secure a consensus between workers and businesses.

The European social model, which drives the competitiveness of European companies, is best promoted by sound corporate governance based on social dialogue, collective bargaining and respect for workers' rights to information, consultation and participation. Making it easier for informed management decisions to be taken in matters of direct interest to workers contributes to a sustainable and fairer business model.

We need solid governance in companies, with strong mechanisms for workers to express their views. This governance must take into account the increasingly globalised structure of businesses and growing supply chains, which will have an impact on the transnational dimension of social dialogue, Ms Del Rio concluded.