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Social Europe

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The Treaty of Rome (1957) commits member states to, ‘ensure 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. Since the mid-1980s, attempts by the EU to create a unified approach to social policy for all members have come into conflict with the desire of some states, especially Britain, to keep control of this policy area. While some see the EU as primarily an economic organisation, others argue that this cannot be separated from the effects it has on society as a whole.


After World War II, most countries in western Europe adopted policies of welfare and full employment that provided generous support for the poor, sick, elderly and unemployed. Although each country had a slightly different interpretation of these policies, this broad approach was considered by some to be a distinct ‘European Social Model’, different from the free market approach of the USA. These ideas influenced the wording of the Treaty of Rome, the setting-up of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Social Fund (ESF).

When some politicians started challenging this consensus during the 1970s and 1980s by overturning trade union rights and cutting benefits in order to encourage stronger economic growth, those on the political left attempted to use the European Community to maintain the ‘European Social Model’. This clash of ideas was 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. Mr Delors presented a Charter of Fundamental Social Rights designed to protect workers, which Mrs Thatcher opposed because she said it would restrict free enterprise. When Delors’ Charter was attached to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 (as the Social Chapter), Britain used its opt-out to stop it becoming part of British law.

The slow co-ordination of social policy

The Maastricht Treaty (1992) proposed EU level regulation of social policy in a range of 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. Some of these proposals went much further than existing British law and were strongly opposed by the then Conservative Government, led by John Major.

The slow integration of Britain into EU social policy accelerated under Prime Minister Tony Blair: Britain signed up to the Social Chapter in 1997 and the Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000.

Further developments included a new EU Directive, which increased the rights of temporary workers implemented in 2011.

However, reforming Social Europe has not been straightforward. For example, in 2004, an EU Cross-border Healthcare Directive was proposed to enable patients to seek treatment in any EU state and recoup the cost from their country of residence. 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 (WTD) in 2008. The WTD limits working hours to a legal maximum of 48-hours per week. One suggestion was to end the UK’s opt-out from the WTD, but negotiations on the revisions broke down in April 2009. The Commission instead launched a comprehensive review of the WTD, in March 2010, with amendments expected to be introduced at the end of 2011.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights

As part of the Nice Treaty, member states agreed a Charter of Fundamental Rights that commits them to maintain a comprehensive set of rights for their citizens. The Charter’s inclusion in the Lisbon Treaty (2007) made it legally binding for all states from 2009. This gave power to the EU, through the European Court of Justice (ECJ), to rule on many aspects of social and employment law. However, the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic obtained an opt-out from the effects of the Charter on their national law.


In recent years, concern has grown in some European countries that the EU is not doing enough to protect jobs in the face of competition from countries like China and India. It has become increasingly common to see protests against the effects of globalisation on the streets of many European cities (including in France and Germany). So far, however, the EU’s attempts to respond to these concerns through its Europe 2020 strategy have had a limited effect.


The purpose of our social model should be to enhance our ability to compete, to help our people cope with globalisation, to let them embrace its opportunities and avoid its dangers. Of course we need a social Europe. But it must be a social Europe that works.” – Tony Blair, British Prime Minister, 2005.

We want out of the Social Chapter, which is a threat to British jobs. The European Union is spewing out too many regulations. It’s holding our economy back.” – Michael Howard, Conservative Party Leader, 2003-2005.

Yes, we need more flexible labour markets, but not a return to the Dickensian sweatshops of the 19th century.” – Jacques Santer, EU Commission President 1995-1999.

Technical Terms

Opt-out: the ability of a member state to permanently exempt itself from part of an EU treaty.

Free market: business governed by the laws of supply and demand, not restrained by government interference.

External Links

European Union – Employment and social affairs

About th3e European Economic and Social Committee


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