Social dialogue after EU enlargement

New actors’ old problems?

Barbara Bechter, Durham University Business School


The integration of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries into the European Union (EU) in 2004 has increased the level of heterogeneity and competition within it. Greater competition arises from the imbalance between economic and social standards in established Western European member states compared to CEE countries. In the absence of sectoral structures for social dialogue in many CEE countries, the capacity to fight regime competition and to mitigate downward pressures on social standards at the national level is limited. This study examines European sectoral social dialogue (ESSD) as a factor in establishing social standards and counteracting downward pressures on wages and working conditions in the EU. In the past, where cooperation occurred between social actors, it was strongly motivated by economic self-interest. This paper examines the role played by heterogeneous actors in the old and new member states since 2004 and their motivation to cooperate or compete with each other over the potential “losses” and “gains” of ESSD outcomes.


The overall purpose of this paper is to assess the interests of actors/social partners who represent both old and new member states in ESSD. The focus is on issues hampering integrative bargaining and the ability of actors involved to realize mutual gains through consensus. Similar to the unification of East and West Germany, we expect to observe not only a conflict between labour and capital about the distribution of social dialogue gains but also between old and new member states (Hyman, 1996).

It has been argued that policy issues tackled at the European level need to be of a consensual character in order to accommodate existing heterogeneity between actors (Keller and Soerris, 1998; DeBoer et al., 2005). Moreover, intended outcomes should be vague so that they are without legal effect and thus incapable of directing national policy choices and of disciplining competitive “beggar-my-neighbor strategies” (Scharpf, 2002). European sectoral framework agreements concluded after 2004 aim to supplement market integration for example by enabling transnational transport services or introducing EU-wide product standards (e.g. Silica, working time framework agreements) rather than establishing a minimum level of social protection (European Commission, 2018). We argue that the incentives for consensus decisions in ESSD are asymmetric, with strong rewards for cooperation in the old member states, in order to safeguard established standards, but incentives for non-cooperation in the new member states.

Functional arguments are used to examine and explain the contribution of different patterns of actor constellations to ESSD outcomes after enlargement of the EU. Particular emphasis will be drawn to the interdependency of actors in western and eastern Europe and the likely consequences of reaching consensus among actors.


We base our analysis on a cross country comparison and develop a model mapping the motives of cooperation and preferences of trade unions and employers in western and eastern Europe over ESSD outcomes. Empirically we use data on actors involved in ESSD from Eurofound representativeness studies for 39 sectors and economic data based on Eurostat’s Structural Business Statistics for the EU-28.


Coalition building efforts and interest coordination between employers and trade unions in CEE are generally limited to the local context. Regional coalition building among likeminded trade unions and employers’ associations is rare with the exception of the Nordic countries. Multinational employers have taken advantage of the less regulated industrial relations systems and employer friendly taxation in CEE, together with lower labor costs and flexible labor markets (Bohle and Sadowski, 2010). The resulting asymmetric power structure is conducive to cooperation within national boundaries but detrimental to cooperation between trade unions across the east and west and does not promote an interest in shared EU policies. Thus for trade unions, ESSD is not seen as the “harbinger” of social integration but an instrument to defend local labour relations (Hancké, 2000).


The research for this paper was financially supported by the European Commission, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. Call for proposals: Improving expertise in the field of industrial relations. Project VP/2016/0092 (2016-2018).


  • Bohle, D. and Sadowski, D. (2010). Transnationale Unternehmen und Gewerkschaften in Osteuropa. Industrielle Beziehungen/The German Journal of Industrial Relations, pp.119-122.
  • De Boer, R., Benedictus, H. and Van Der Meer, M. (2005). Broadening without intensification: The added value of the European social and sectoral dialogue. European Journal of Industrial Relations, 11(1), pp.51-70.
  • European Commission (2018) Social dialogue text database. Available at [accessed November 2018].
  • Hancké, B. (2000). European works councils and industrial restructuring in the European motor industry. European Journal of Industrial relations, 6(1), pp.35-59.
  • Hyman, R. (1996). Institutional transfer: industrial relations in Eastern Germany. Work, Employment and Society, 10(4), pp.601-639.
  • Keller, B. and Sorries, B. (1998). The sectoral social dialogue and European social policy: more fantasy, fewer facts. European Journal of Industrial Relations, 4(3), pp.331-348.
  • Scharpf, F.W. (2002). The European social model. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 40(4), pp.645-670.