• European Employment Policy: A Political Landscape

  • Καρόλα Μπόγκερ | 23 Feb 16
  • The European Commission plays a leading role in shaping European employment policy through programmes and legislation. The following is a brief outline of the European Parliament that was elected in 2014 and the new Commission and their priorities in the area of employment policy, as part of the political landscape within which European employment policy is determined.

    The New European Commission

    For the first time ever, nominations for the Commission President were put forward by the European Parliament (EP). The proposed candidates were: Alexis Tsipras, Ska Keller, and Jean-Claude Juncker. Juncker prevailed. The Council – led by Angela Merkel – was not comfortable with the idea of approving the EP majority-supported candidate as President of the Commission, as it could set a precedent for future nominations. Nevertheless, the conservative majority could hardly reject the conservative Jean-Claude Juncker. The EP was obliged to ratify en bloc the future cabinet of the Commission, comprising a Commissioner in and from each Member State. Before this, however, each of the Commissioners had to be grilled by the committees corresponding to their areas of responsibility.

    The run-up to this process was characterised by various disturbances, by deal-making, scandals, and ‘strange coincidences’: a finance commissioner coming from the private financial sector in England; a Spanish environmental commissioner with connections to the Spanish oil industry, etc. – these all raised questions. One candidate had to be replaced because the EP would not have accepted her. Otherwise, the entire slate would have had to be rejected.

    The Commission proposed Marianne Thyssen from Belgium as Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills, and Labour Mobility, although this is not her area of expertise, and she has remained rather bland from the outset. Due to the new structure of the Commission, this time three Commissioners were grilled by the Employment and Social Affairs Committee (EMPL). In addition to Marianne Thyssen, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Valdis Dombrovskis is now also involved, since matters of social dialogue are within his remit. Jyrki Katainen is one of seven Vice-Presidents of the Commission and is responsible for coordination of matters concerning jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

    The Commission’s Employment Programme

    The Commission’s employment programme1 declares its primary goal to be the provision of new impetus for jobs, growth, and investment, although jobs can be understood more as a result of growth and investment than as an independent objective. Of the ten priorities, the digital agenda, the energy union, and a single market with a reinforced industrial base are most closely associated with the question of employment. It is striking that social integration and the struggle against poverty will not be accorded an important place, as they were during the last Commission.

    Among the new initiatives are the investment plan (the so-called Juncker Plan, or European Fund for Strategic Investments - EFSI), promoting integration in the labour market and the capacity to work, the Digital Agenda Packet, the Labour Mobility Package, and the Aviation Package.2 The Juncker Plan has since been adopted. The Mobility Package was launched in the autumn of 2015. The Aviation Package is not explicitly connected with employment, but it is to be feared that it will (also) amount to wage reduction.

    ‘Better Lawmaking’ and ‘REFIT’

    The programme ‘Better Lawmaking’,3 with its REFIT (Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme) component, is a little-noticed or underestimated programme involving all areas of the EU’s competence.

    It is difficult to criticise a programme that sounds so good. No reasonable person could be against its objectives: better legislation procedures, simplification, more efficiency, reduced bureaucracy, and cost savings in the examination of existing and planned legislation and of other Commission measures.

    When the issue is simply one of establishing a standard form for declaring value-added tax the concern for simplified and more efficient procedure sounds reasonable. However, subjecting the legislative framework for European occupational health and safety to a ‘fitness check’ under the rubric of cost saving and reducing bureaucracy calls the whole purpose of the guidelines on employee occupational health and safety anchored in Article 153 (1), d Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU – one of the two treaties of Lisbon), into question. This form of bureaucracy and cost reduction unilaterally supports only the employer.4

    The idea of ‘Better Lawmaking’ is not entirely new, and it does make sense to regularly look into the growing number of EU legal instruments to see whether they have stood the practical test. The objective here, however, has been changed over time: ‘The initial goals of simplification and qualitative improvement have been replaced by the fight against bureaucracy and the contribution to competitiveness.’5

    However, with the appointment of former Prime Minister of the German Federal State of Bavaria Edmund Stoiber as Chair of the High Level Group on Administrative Burdens,6 the programme now has a face. Stoiber is a member of the very business-friendly Bavarian CSU. Although the Group is only a panel composed of internal and external experts conferring on administrative issues, the Commission does generally adopt their recommendations. The recommendations of the final report of the Stoiber Group have not found favour everywhere. Even some of its individual members have expressed a minority opinion critical of these recommendations. 7

    On 19 May 2015, the Commission presented its latest 500-page comprehensive communication on better regulation to the public.8 The announced purpose is to reduce bureaucracy and improve efficiency by means of an evaluation of all existing and pending policies and regulations by internal and external groups of experts (whose composition and competences have to be considered very critically). One of the key aspects of this programme is that it commits the Commission to this process.

    However, the danger here is that legislative proposals will be stifled by the Commission before they reach the two co-legislators, the Council and the Parliament.

    Moreover, one of the papers is about an inter-institutional agreement to be adopted between the Commission, Council, and Parliament. This agreement is intended to bind the Council and Parliament to the new regulations as well. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is critical of this project.9 It could lead to a self-limitation or partial disempowerment of the Parliament. Taken as a whole, ‘Better Lawmaking’ has to be considered dangerous for workers’ rights. Individual trade unions also view it very critically.10 Better Regulation Watchdog, a new platform of trade unions and NGOs in the areas of social policy, and in environmental and consumer protection, has since been established to keep a critical eye on ‘Better Lawmaking’.11

    The most important projects that the Commission has included in the Better Lawmaking / REFIT agenda are:12

    Summarising and simplifying the three directives on information and consultation of employees;13

    - revising the Framework Directive on Workplace Health and Safety;14

    - reviewing the Part-Time Work and Fixed-Term Employment Directive;15

    - reviewing the directive for written proof of employment contracts.16

    The Commission had already previously made it known that it wished to withdraw the proposal on the Parental Leave Directive and present a new one. In addition, the Commission announced it would not present the European social partners agreement in the hairdressing sector to the Council for adoption in the form of a binding directive under Article 155 TFEU.

    Not only do trade unions view these measures critically; the consultation and information directives deal with three completely different regulatory areas. Moreover, it is unclear what is meant by ‘simplification’. Considering the political majorities in the Parliament and Council, a positive outcome is improbable.

    The situation is still more delicate in the case of the directives on part-time and temporary employment, for they involve European social partner agreements that were then proposed by the Commission under Article 155 TFEU and adopted by the Council as a Directive. Just by providing an evaluation, the Commission is interfering with the autonomy of the social partners because an evaluation exerts pressure.

    So far the Commission has refused to submit the Agreement on Occupational Health and Safety in the Hairdressing Sector to the Council. The informal justification is that the Member States would block its adoption. This kind of refusal by the Commission is unprecedented. It ignores the role of the European social partners as laid down in the Treaty of Lisbon. Here, the Commission is pre-empting the Council’s actions, thus excluding the social partners.

    The entire Better Lawmaking / REFIT programme falls under the responsibility of Frans Timmermans. He is the Commission’s Vice-President, and is accumulating unprecedented influence and power in all of its spheres through the cross-sectoral application of the programme. His importance is in part due to Juncker having been considerably weakened by the ‘Lux-Leaks’ affair involving tax-evasion and saving schemes in Luxembourg, for which he bore responsibility as Prime Minister. The de facto power given to Timmermans, moreover, limits the scope for action of the Commissioner for Employment.

    The interplay of the Commission, Parliament, and Council

    The new Commission was eagerly awaited, as many were glad that José Manuel Barroso’s second term had come to an end. However the prospect of Juncker as Commission President was no cause for euphoria. The important Social Dialogue component has been trimmed from the area of employment, a Vice President presides over and coordinates it, and through the all-powerful Better-Lawmaking programme Juncker’s Vice President is clamping down on the whole area.

    Even if the Troika is now referred to as ‘the institutions’, there are no signs that the infamous disciplinary measures associated with the Troika will end. Even if the European Parliament’s involvement were permitted – as demanded by some – the resultant whiff of legitimacy would not change the brutality of the measures. Consequently, the cuts to wages, salaries, and pensions, and the destruction of collective agreements and collective bargaining structures will probably remain. Even if they were to end, the collective bargaining structures that have been destroyed in the affected Member States, especially Greece and Portugal, cannot be easily reversed. So far, even the classification of some measures as illegal has not had any effect on the reality.

    The majorities in the European Parliament are conservative. In em­ployment policy, the conservatives (EPP), ultra-conservatives (ECR), and portions of the liberals (ALDE) tend strongly to economic stimulus through promoting small and medium-sized business and self-employment, gearing education and training to the needs of economy, and through the privatisation of public services.

    In the EMPL Committee, the Socialists, Greens, parts of EFDD (Italy’s Five Star Movement), and GUE/NGL often work with the same set of objectives, but this is still usually insufficient to reach majorities within the Committee. Majorities in the Parliament as a whole are much more difficult to change.

    The Committee is chaired by the trade-unionist Thomas Händel (GUE/ NGL), who can have some influence on internal decisions in the Parliament but cannot change the direction as a whole. It is still hard to foresee how the newly formed ENF group led by Marine Le Pen will alter EP’s political landscape.

    The majorities in the European Council, which is to say the governments of the Member States, are also conservative. There are only a few socialist governments, and up to now the only radical left government is Greece’s, headed by Alexis Tsipras.

    Workers’ rights and employment policy projects can only be won in coalition with certain allies. Among the best mobilised and most assertive of these are the unions. However, the situation in recent years has by no means been rosy. The trade unions and the workers organised in them have fought against relocation, outsourcing, sub-contracting, fictitious self-employment, precarious working conditions, bogus posting, temporary work, zero-hour contracts, crowd-working, and all forms of downward pressure on wages and deterioration of labour conditions. At the same time, the banking and financial crisis has spilled over into the real economy. This has resulted in massive redundancies and cuts in social spending in most EU Member States.

    NGOs are nothing new. But there are also other forms of civil-society organisations that have in some cases emerged because activists did not identify with the established parties and/or organisations, or because their issue (right-to-water, Blockupy) took on particular current relevance. The lower participation in parties, trade unions, and in elections is, the more unions, parties, and NGOs have to work together to achieve results.


    It is certainly positive that the Commission has put combatting youth unemployment at the top of the agenda. But the Youth Guarantee is not enough; investment is also urgently needed. The 315-billion-euro EFSI – with approximately 21 billion contributed/guaranteed by the EU and the rest to be co-financed by the private sector – will not be sufficient for reasonable and adequate investment.

    Juncker’s statement on the situation of posted workers – that equal pay for equal work should apply – is very positive, and the last legislature saw the adoption of the Enforcement Directive for the Posting of Workers Directive (as well as REFIT). However, the main problem – the obligation to pay the minimum wage rather than equal pay for equal work – was not addressed, and thus the possibility for all forms of use and abuse remains. We shall see what the Commission means by a ‘targeted’ revision of the Posting of Workers Directive as part of the Mobility Package.

    The new Commission is counting on the mobility of workers. As long as this is voluntary and does not lead to a quasi-forced migration, there is nothing to object to. The Commission intends to present the Mobility Package in the autumn.

    There is also a ticking time bomb hidden within the Five Presidents’ Report: the proposal for the establishment of national ‘Competitiveness Authorities’ to monitor national competitiveness. 17 The social partners shall continue to be responsible for collective bargaining policy. However, the positions expressed by these Authorities are meant to serve as guidelines in collective bargaining processes. For trade unionists, this smacks of an encroachment on the bargaining autonomy of the social partners.

    The direction of the Commission is clear: economic growth and the competitiveness of the EU in the wider world. Profits are to be generated from technical competitive advantages, from depressed wages, and from savings in the social systems.

    The fight against poverty and for social inclusion no longer has priority status for this Commission. So far, there have been little or no proposals on countering precarious employment, for example, by increasing controls to enforce compliance with working-conditions regulations. On the contrary; the Better Lawmaking agenda reduces binding regulations, preferring non­binding agreements between Member States, whose instrument is the Open Method of Coordination (OMC).

    Overall, the question arises as to whether in the future we want to or should see employment and social policies determined by what amounts to Catholic social doctrine: charity instead of legal rights and statutory benefits, begging rather than asserted demands, gratitude instead of emancipation.

    But burying our heads in the sand is no option. Employment and social policy are the primary objectives of European policy and not byproducts of international competitiveness. Granted, the struggle against the Bolkestein Directive (Directive on Services in the Internal Market) has long since been won. But for two to three years now there has been successful protest – throughout Europe – against the privatisation of water, in the EP in the form of the Directive on the Award of Concession Contracts 2014/23/ EU, as well as through the first European Citizens’ Initiative: the Right to Water. Currently, major protest is being mobilised against TTIP, the free trade agreement with the United States; the movement is active across Europe and partly in North America and is supported by many parties, trade unions, and NGOs. Mobilisation against TTIP has been far more successful than initially expected.

    Should the Commission intend to revise yet again the Working Time Directive during this legislative period, a total fiasco can only be avoided if trade unions, civil society, and the Parliament work closely to organise joint actions.

    In these times of the Better Lawmaking programme and the establishment of Competitiveness authorities, it is not only possible but all the more necessary to mobilise. To do so, alliances with trade unions and civil-society organisations are necessary. The trade unions and many NGOs have been working intensively and closely with the Parliament, even if unions have been significantly weakened in recent years. But it remains truer than ever that the EP deputies who are committed to employment and positive social policy need the support and mobilisation of trade unions and civil society in order to achieve anything.


    1. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Commission Work Program 2015. A New Start. COM(2014) 910 final, http://ec.europa.eu/atwork/pdf/cwp_2015_en.pdf.
    2. Annex 1 of COM(2014) 910 final, http://ec.europa.eu/atwork/pdf/cwp_2015_new_initiatives_en.pdf
    3. http://ec.europa.eu/smart-regulation/better_regulation/key_docs_en.htm(accessed: 6 October 2015). Here are all the documents for ‘better regulation’, but not in all languages. They are usually available in all EU languages using the document number.
    4. Follow-up measures by the Commission on ten major SME consultations on EU regulation: COM(2013) 446 final, COM(2013)122 final, and the ‘Small Business Act’. These ideas have already seeped into the 2010 EP - EMPL Study Implementation of the Directives on Health and Safety at Work as a Cost Factor IP/A/EMPL/ST/2009-10, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201107/20110718ATT24264/20110718ATT24264EN.pdf
    5. Eric Van den Abeele, The EU´s REFIT Strategy: a new bureaucracy in the service of competitiveness? ETUI Working-Paper 2014.054 (Brussels, 2014), p. 27, https://www.etui.org/Publications2/Working-Papers/The-EU-s-REFIT-strategy-a-new-bureaucracy-in-the-service-of-competitiveness
    6. http://ec.europa.eu/smart-regulation/refit/admin_burden/high_level_group_en.htm
    7. http://ec.europa.eu/smart-regulation/refit/admin_burden/docs/annex_12_en_hlg_ab_dissenting_opinion.pdf
    8. COM(2015)215 final: Better regulation for better results -An EU agenda, http://ec.europa.eu/smart-regulation/better_regulation/documents/com_2015_215_en.pdf
    9. https://www.etuc.org/documents/proposal-interinstitutional-agreement-better-regulation-%E2%80%93-etuc-position-paper#.VsxU2fnhBaR
    10. https://www.etuc.org/documents/etuc-declaration-better-regulation#.VsxU-_nhBaS and http://www.etui.org/Publications2/Reports/The-European-union-s-better-regulation-agenda
    11. http://www.betterregwatch.eu/
    12. Commission Work Programme COM(2014) 910 final, Annex 3.
    13. 2002/14/Framework Directive on Information and Consultation, 98/59/EC on mass redundancies, Directive 2001/23/EC on transfers of undertakings.
    14. 89/391/EEC.