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European social dialogue as multi-level governance: Towards more autonomy and new dependencies

Paul Marginson and [Maarten Keune]

European Integration online Papers, Special Mini-Issue 1, Vol.16 'EU Law, Governance and Social Policy'


Almost twenty years ago the Maastricht Treaty introduced procedures for European Social Dialogue, as part of a larger package of measures to strengthen the social dimension of European integration. Through the Treaty provisions (articles 154-155 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), the European social partners received the competence to become, in principle, co-regulators of the European labour market. The conventional reading of the evolution of European social dialogue since its inception is that it has evolved from a relationship of dependency of the European social partners on the European institutions for the implementation of their framework agreements, towards a more autonomous position in which the social partners themselves take charge of implementation. Since the early 2000s, the argument continues, the social partners have taken a more proactive and independent stance and opted to focus on autonomous framework agreements, and other ‘new generation texts’, including joint reports, recommendations, compendia of good practices, etc., which are not directed at the European institutions in order to secure implementation. In this paper we want to challenge and move beyond this rather linear and one-dimensional conceptualisation of the evolution of European social dialogue. Empirically, we will show that there has not been a straightforward move away from the ‘implementation through Directive’ mode in favour of autonomous agreements. Whereas this may seem the case if we take a view of the cross-sector dialogue only, the picture changes when we have a closer look and include developments in the European sector social dialogue in the analysis. Analytically, we will argue that framing the issue in terms of dependency or autonomy does not do justice to the complexity of relationships that are involved in the European social dialogue and the European sector social dialogue, and in the implementation of framework agreements and other new generation texts. Also it accords little attention to the role of power in the relationships involved. We draw on a multi-governance perspective to analyse the dynamics of European social dialogue, which allows us to capture the relevant multiple horizontal and vertical relationships, or interdependencies, between the European and national, and public and private, actors involved. Interdependency implies the presence of both autonomy and dependence in a relationship, and our central proposition is that these interdependencies simultaneously enhance and limit the capacity of the European social partners to make and implement agreements.