European Labor: Social Dialogue, Social Pacts, or a Social Europe?

Monthly Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

European Labor: Social Dialogue, Social Pacts, or a Social Europe?


Asbjorn Wahl

For many years the European trade union movement has demanded a "social Europe" from European governments and the European Union(EU). If the integration of Europe were to be successful, it had to be accompanied by a strong social dimension-a people's Europe. This was also the expressed aim of European social democracy--to regain control of capital forces and create a "social Europe" through the European Union. Now; for the first time since the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC), social democratic, or social democratic dominated governments have been in power throughout the EU for some years. However, a "social Europe" has yet to be realized.

A Social Europe as an Alternative

In the 1990s, European trade unions began to move forward again after the right-wing backlash of the 1980s. Their demand for a "social Europe" was sounded in more European languages as the decade came to a close. Public sector workers besieged the streets of most French cities for three weeks in the autumn of 1995, nearly fomenting a general social uprising before the extremely unpopular Alain Juppe government capitulated and withdrew its proposal of massive cuts in public spending. In 1997, Renault workers in Belgium, France, and Spain demonstrated in Paris against the relocation of a factory from Wilwoorde in Belgium to a more EU-subsidized area in Spain. That year German workers mobilized against cuts in social welfare spending by the Kohl government. Thousands of unemployed and others filled the streets of Cologne during the EU summit in 1998, as well as during EU summits in following years.

None of these demonstrations took the form of rallies in favor of the Maastricht Treaty or the Stability Pact. None of them demanded that the European Commission or the Council of Ministers speed up the integration process. They all were protests against the direct consequences of mass unemployment, cuts in welfare, and attacks on wages and working conditions. The demand for a "social Europe" was raised as a reaction against, and an alternative to, the concrete development of the real existing EU project.

The EU in the Global Play

The internationalization of the economy, the role of the EU, and ever more open markets represent new and enormous challenges for trade unions all over Europe. As political decisions are moved from the national to the supranational level, and from political institutions to the market, national trade unions lose power and influence. The fact that this takes place in a situation where capital forces are on the offensive in the so-called globalization process compounds the problem.

The EU of today, with its single market and monetary union, is the concrete political expression of the globalization process in Europe. Whatever the initial reason for establishing the EEC, the driving force now in the development of the EU is the struggle for markets and hegemony among the three centers of the international capitalist economy--the United States, Japan, and the European Union. The aim is to strengthen the European corner of the global triangle, to create a stronger home base for the "European" multinational companies.

With this analytical approach, it is easier to understand the social consequences of the EU. It makes clear that the establishment of an economic and monetary union in Europe, under current conditions, will mean continued deregulation and privatization, increased market orientation, a more "flexible" labor market, and further cuts in public spending. It is easy to see why what has been labeled the "European social market economy" is disintegrating around us. It is also explains why the social democratic "social Europe" is yet to come, even though social democrats now dominate the EU.

The "Social Europe" that Failed

In the autumn of 1998, we witnessed the hard landing of European social democracy. …

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