Social Policy: The UK and Maastricht

By Gold, Michael | National Institute Economic Review, February 1992 | Go to article overview

Social Policy: The UK and Maastricht

Gold, Michael, National Institute Economic Review

On 7 February 1992, European Community Foreign and Finance Ministers signed the Treaty on European Union which contains only the second set of constitutional amendments to the EEC Treaty since 1957. This new Treaty merged into one text the Treaty on Economic and Monetary Union and the Treaty on Political Union which had been agreed at the European Council in Maastricht two months previously.

The significance of the new Treaty for the future of the European Community is considerable as it promotes further integration between the member states across a wide range of policy areas, including economic and monetary union, rights of citizenship, foreign affairs and institutional reform, amongst others").

However, this process of promoting further integration did not run altogether smoothly. Both before and during negotiations over the new Treaties the UK Government made clear its opposition towards the accelerated harmonisation of key aspects of social and labour policy. The outcome was the Social Protocol: an agreement amongst the twelve member states to continue to pursue the adoption of social and labour policy measures through the existing provisions of the EEC Treaty, but with the proviso that eleven of them could make progress with the more contentious items outside the formal provisions of the Treaty if the UK would otherwise block them. In such cases, majority voting on the Council will be extended to govern a wider range of social and labour policy areas and the role of management and labour in the policy-making process will be strengthened.

The position is a complex one which is confused further by the terminology-the Social Charter, the social action programme, the social chapter and so on. In this note we therefore outline the origins of the Social Protocol before turning to examine its implications for the UK.


The Community Charter of Basic Social Rights-adopted by 11 of the 12 EC member states at the Strasbourg summit in December 198 9 as a `Solemn Declaration'-focussed attention on the social dimension of the EC in a way which had been unprecedented until then.

Although international agencies such as the ILO and the Council of Europe have a long history of attempting to define general principles of employment rights, the institutions of the EC had never before attempted o draw tip anything like the Social Charter. Whilst the Commission's first social action programme dates back to the early-1970s, debates on social and labour policy till now have tended to centre on specific initiatives, notably equal treatment, industrial participation and health and safety.

The Social Charter, however, was intended to establish a basis for the European social dimension by establishing a set of rights systematically applicable to all workers and to certain groups of marginalised people across all member states. Its accompanying social action programme proposed 47 individual measures grouped under thirteen separate headings, such as the labour market, employment and remuneration, social protection and vocational training, as well as under more familiar headings like equal treatment and health and safety. it also covered action for children and adolescents, the elderly and the disabled.

The Social Charter also helped focus attention on certain procedural issues. Its supporters maintained that its chances of implementation were severely limited if unanimous voting on the Council of Ministers were required to adopt the majority of its proposals. Therefore, it was argued, majority voting should be extended to cover all social policy initiatives, not just health and safety as then the case. Without majority voting, any one member state could veto proposals which were otherwise supported by all the rest.

The Social Charter therefore sparked off a double controversy: debate raged both round the substantive issues-the merits and demerits of individual measures-as well as round the procedural issues and the alleged democratic deficit' within the EC institutions which might hinder their implementation. …

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