Brexit Institute News

The future of Social Europe without the UK

Paul Copeland (Queen Mary University of London)

The EU has a relatively limited competence in employment and social policy, but over the last three decades has managed to harmonise policy in certain key areas, such as health and safety, working conditions, and equal treatment of men and women in the labour market.

Progress in reaching agreements has been slow and piecemeal, much to the lamenting of those on the centre-left who would prefer a more substantial role for the EU in the field. A level playing field in social Europe, it is argued, would reduce regime shopping i.e. multi-national companies locating and relocating to Member States with the cheapest and most flexible employment policies.

The UK has long been a staunch opponent of EU Directives in the field. Historically, the UK has secured several opt-outs and formed political alliances to block agreements. The most famous of these being the Working Time Directive which, amongst other things, limits the number of hours an employee can work to 48 per week (calculated as an average over a period of four months). At the insistence of the UK, the 1993 Directive includes an opt-out to the 48-hour rule and Britain was the only Member State to make use of it. The original Directive also included a review clause to remove the opt-out within ten years to allow the UK time to reduce its long-hours working culture, but some near 30 years later the opt-out remains and its usage has spread to other Member states. The New Labour Governments (1997-2010) have built political alliances with other Member States to prevent its removal.

Meanwhile, the bitter infighting over legislative agreements in social Europe became the mainstay during the two Barroso Commissions (2004-2009 and 2009-2014). Relations between the Parliament on the one hand, and the Commission and the Council on other, deteriorated. When agreements on proposed directives were eventually secured in the Council, the Parliament refused to compromise. It argued the Commission, bolstered by Member States such as the UK, were preventing a centre-left social Europe from developing.

The declining fortunes of social Europe roughly shifted following the 2016 UK decision to leave the EU. During its time in office the Juncker Commission (2014-2019) initiated several reforms to existing directives and secured agreements on revisions to the Written Statement Directive and on Work-Life Balance for Parents and Carers. At the time, despite having not left the EU, UK political agency was in decline and this appeared to suggest a renaissance in social Europe.

Delving deeper into the dynamics of legislative agreements demonstrates that the situation is more complex and correlation is not always causation. In both the previously mentioned Directives, the negotiations were not particularly controversial in the Council, although it did watered down Commission’s proposals. Agreement in the Council was sufficient to achieve near unanimity support, despite only needing a qualified majority – the latter being roughly two-thirds of the votes cast by the Member States.

However, the legislative agreements were secured by the Parliament accepting the position of the Council, something it had not done during the Barroso years. Meanwhile, the Commission refused to be drawn into the negotiations, which undoubtedly helped to smooth relations between the Council and the Parliament.

Post-2016 the inching forward of legislation for social Europe was therefore secured, not so much by the decline of UK agency, but by shifts within the Parliament. The Parliament was concerned that if it pushed for more extensive provisions in the legislation than that agreed by the Council, relations would revert back to the deadlock of the Barroso Commissions. The reputational consequences of this for the Parliament would be significant, particularly in the context of the fast approaching 2019 European elections.

When it came to more controversial legislative proposals from the Juncker Commission, such as the possibility of extending social protection to all workers, old fault lines within the Council quickly emerged. Northern and Eastern Member States were quick to highlight that employment and social policy is predominantly a competence of the Member States, not the EU. Their objection to new directives for social Europe has continued under the Commission of Ursula von der Leyen.

The recent Porto Social Summit (07/05/2021) was held to design a roadmap for social Europe over the coming years. Prior to the meeting Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, and Sweden issued a joint statement stating that employment and social policy is the responsibility of national governments and that any EU action in the field should fully respect the division of competences of the Union, its Member States and the social partners.

Without the troublesome UK, the future of social Europe looks set to continue its slow and piecemeal integration trajectory.


Paul Copeland (@drpaulqmul) is Reader of Public Policy at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London. This blogpost is based on Copeland, P. (2021) ‘The Ordinary Legislative Procedure in a Post-Brexit EU: The Case of Social Europe’, Politics and Governance, 9(1): 69-78.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.

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