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Social Europe

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The Treaty of Rome (1957) commits EU member states to ensuring the ‘social progress of their countries by common action to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe’.  Since the EU’s foundation, this has been interpreted in different ways by different politicians, some wanting freedom for the market and others wanting greater protection for workers and domestic industries.

Attempts by the EU to unify social policy have led to disagreement, as some member states want to keep control of this policy area. While some see the EU as a primarily economic organisation, others argue social policy cannot be separated from economic policy as it affects society as a whole.

After World War II, most countries in western Europe adopted policies which provided welfare support for the poor, sick, elderly and unemployed, and which aimed to increase employment. Although each country had different interpretations of these policies, this broad approach was considered by some to be a distinct European social model. These ideas influenced the wording of the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic and Social Committee, providing a platform, at an EU level, for social partners such as employers and trade unions. It also set up the European Social Fund, through which the EU funds projects to boost employment and social inclusion.

When some politicians started challenging this social model during the 1970s and 1980s by overturning trade union rights and cutting benefits to encourage stronger economic growth, those on the political left attempted to use the European Community to maintain the European social model.

This clash played out on the European stage in the late 1980s as a battle between the pro-market British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the EU Commission President, Jacques Delors. In 1989, Delors presented a Charter of Fundamental Social Rights designed to protect workers. It was adopted by all member states except the UK as Thatcher opposed it on the grounds that it would restrict free enterprise. When this charter was attached to the Maastricht Treaty (1992) as the Social Chapter, Britain used its opt-out to stop it becoming part of British law.

The co-ordination of social policy
The Maastricht Treaty proposed EU regulation in a range of social policy areas covering health and safety, gender equality, collective bargaining, social security, social exclusion and the right of workers to play a role in managing the companies they work for.

In 1993, the EU introduced the Working Time Directive which guarantees holidays and limits working hours to a legal maximum of 48-hours per week for EU employees. This was challenged by the UK government at the European Court of Justice, but it was overruled. UK employees are able to work more than 48 hours if they choose, but the rest of the directive applies in full. It was adopted into UK law in 1998. Further integration of the UK into EU social policy took place under Prime Minister Tony Blair, with the UK signing up to the Social Chapter in 1997 and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guaranteed all EU citizens certain, social, economic and political rights, in 2000. However, the UK and Poland negotiated to opt out from the legal force of the charter when it was included in the Lisbon Treaty (2007).

Reforming social Europe has not been straightforward. For example, in 2004, an EU healthcare directive was proposed to enable patients to seek treatment in any EU state and recoup the cost from their home country. It was delayed when nine countries voted against the draft directive in December 2009. EU health ministers agreed a revised version of the directive in June 2010 and it was formally adopted in March 2011. There were similar disruptions to a proposal to revise the EU’s Working Time Directive in 2008 and 2010, both of which broke down.