Social Chapter

Social Chapter in Europe

Description of Social Chapter

The Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union describes social chapter in the following terms: [1] The Social Chapter was originally to be incorporated in the Maastricht Treatyas an expanded and communitised version of the broad social aspirations foreshadowed in the Treaty of Rome (see more in this European encyclopedia). Its detailed provisions were based on the ‘Social Charter’ (the ‘Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers’, signed in 1989 by all the member states except the UK) and the subsequent Action Programme of the Commission – a catalogue of social market prescriptions covering health and safety, sexual equality, collective bargaining rights, social security, the ‘combating of exclusion’ and, most controversially, worker participation in the direction of companies. The Social Chapter’s main protagonist was Commission president Jacques Delors, that keen advocate of the ‘European model of society’ in which social objectives were held to be of equal importance with economic objectives in the framing of Community legislation. His chief opponent was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who believed that over-regulation destroyed jobs and that employment legislation was a matter for national governments, not the EU – ironically, a stance that reflected the intent of the Treaty of Rome more faithfully than Delors’ integrationist proposals.

In 1990 John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher (see more in this European encyclopedia). He soon proved as adamantly opposed as she to the conversion of the non-binding Social Charterinto Treaty law. Faced with his obduracy, the other member states finally annexed the Delors text to the Maastricht Treaty as the Protocol on Social Policy, known as the ‘Social Chapter’. The fact that the UK was again the only country not to sign constituted the notorious British opt-out. Almost immediately, however, the opt-out became an object of further controversy. In 1993 the Commission’s Working Time Directive was passed into law, introduced not under the Social Chapter but as a single market measure, thereby circumventing Britain’s hard-won exemption. The Court of Justiceupheld the Commission’s action. From that judgment there was no right of appeal.

On coming to power in 1997 Tony Blair’s Labour government carried out its manifesto pledge to cancel the British opt-out, clearing the way for the incorporation of the Chapter into the main body of the Treaty of Rome by way of amendments in the Treaty of Amsterdam. At the same time Blair promised that the Chapter would not be allowed to undermine competitiveness – a promise that had some foundation in the words of the Treaty, but on which it would be hard to deliver, given the far from free market proclivities of most European governments and the widespread use of qualified majority voting in social legislation.

I cannot think of a single more effective way to create poverty and unemployment in southern Europe. Antonio Martino, former Italian foreign secretary, on the Social Chapter, 1997

Indeed, on the Continent the Chapter has generally been regarded as little more than a codification of social market principles already embodied in national employment law. British industry, however, continues to view it with suspicion, seeing it as a licence to undo the labour market reforms instituted by Thatcher (see more in this European encyclopedia). The story of the Social Chapter epitomises the ideological divide within the Community between the Continental and Anglo-Saxon models of society and economic management. With the defeat of the Conservatives in the UK and the abandonment of the British opt-out it seemed for a while that the Delors vision had prevailed. Blair, however, is no socialist, and even in a period where most governments in Europe are of the left or centre left, global competitive pressures – and the success of the USA – are formidable agents of change and reappraisal. (See also Social Charter.)


Notas y References

  1. Based on the book “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach (Profile Books; London)

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