Co-funded by the European Union

Social partners of the countries of the European Union: a new study to assess capacity gaps and needs for effective social dialogue

  • The study showed how the weakness of social partners and lack of representativeness can hinder effective social dialogue;
  • Legislative reforms and a supportive role of the state are key to improve social dialogue processes.
  • Employers stressed on the need to ensure autonomy of the social partners and sufficient room for manoeuvre.

Social dialogue is at the centre of the European Social Model and embedded in all industrial relations context of the countries of the European Union. It has been a priority for past decades and it is still a priority under the European Union framework. To be able to play their role properly national social partners need to be strong, autonomous, and effectively represent and advocate the interests of their members.

Eurofound, the tripartite European Union Agency established in 1975 to deal with labour issues, just released a report on “Capacity building for effective social dialogue in the European Union”. The paper’s aim is to determine how Eurofound can contribute to supporting capacity building of social partners for effective social dialogue by:

  • presenting and analysing capacity gaps, needs and issues;
  • supporting possible solutions;
  • and putting forward policy pointers for further action.

Based on the agreement of the tripartite members of Eurofound, the document provided a definition of “Capacity building” for the purpose of the report as: “the enhancement of skills, abilities and powers of the social partners to engage effectively at different levels (EU, national, regional, sectoral, company and establishment) in:

  • social dialogue
  • collective bargaining
  • (co)regulating the employment relationship
  • tripartite and bipartite consultations
  • public policymaking
  • influencing public policymaking via advocacy”.

According to the report, “social dialogue and well-functioning industrial relations serve the general interest and as such should be supported by public policy. This should be reflected not only in the actions of social partners but also in the allocation of public monies and in the actions of public authorities to advocate effective social dialogue”. Moreover, as shown by the good examples of social dialogue to face the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and social context at the national level, “well-developed industrial relations are likely to bring about a better balance between the role of the state and that of social partners, facilitating adaptation to quickly evolving labour markets”.

The report identified the following “structural gaps and barriers” to social dialogue, and social partners’ needs:

Structural gaps and barriers

  • weakness of social partners and lack of representativeness and mandate to negotiate;
  • limited sectoral collective bargaining and low collective bargaining coverage;
  • limited tripartism and frameworks for effective social dialogue;
  • lack of social partner autonomy and a dominant role of the state;
  • lack of trust between social partners, both sides of industry, and governments


  • legislative reforms to promote social dialogue and collective bargaining;
  • supportive role of the state;
  • increased membership, representativeness and capacity, and mandate to negotiate;
  • better human resources and development of skills;
  • better financial resources

To conclude, some policy pointers for possible solutions were presented. Among them:

  • Attempts to close structural gaps within the national systems of industrial relations should be supported”.
  • “The autonomy of social partners should be respected and reinforced”.
  • “Social partners should be supported in their efforts to increase their membership, representativeness, and capacity to negotiate and implement agreements”.
  • “Bipartite social dialogue is the core of national industrial relations and should be underpinned by supportive legal frameworks”.
  • “Social partners should invest in building, or, when necessary, rebuilding trust for more effective social dialogue”.
  • “More awareness-raising campaigns could be undertaken about social dialogue and its potential for improving working conditions and competitiveness”.

From employers’ perspective, the report highlighted two elements of key importance, namely the autonomy of the social partners and the room left by the institutional and legal framework for social partners to engage and dialogue. These two interlinked issues have been underlined in multiples employers’ forums as hindering effective social dialogue.

On the first element, intended as the lack of interference and unilateral decision from the government, the report stressed how “the autonomy of social partners is an important prerequisite for effective social dialogue. Yet, a number of reports raise concerns about an increasing dominance of the state in social dialogue and collective bargaining (Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy and Poland)”. It provided the viewpoint of BusinessEurope: “the state should create an autonomous space for the social partners to engage in. Autonomy – for example, social partners being able to deal with issues without government interference or to negotiate arrangements that are different to the legal requirements in the labour code in accordance with clearly agreed rules – was the main motivation of social dialogue and collective bargaining to serve the needs of industry. In some western European countries, collective bargaining frameworks are set by the social partners themselves, which could inspire social partners in other countries where social partners want to evolve towards a more autonomous approach”.

The issue of the autonomy of the social partners is complemented by the room provided by the legislation to social partners’ engagement. If such room is too narrow, social partners will be refrained from playing an active role. For instance, “the Romanian employers argued that the labour code was too prescriptive and did not leave sufficient room for negotiations”. Not only the legislation, but also the institutional framework should leave more room to social partners, for example for bipartite exchanges. Bipartite social dialogue is considered as a precondition for effective tripartism, but at the same time it is reported to be weak in Croatia, Poland, Latvia. The Latvian employers stressed “the difficulty of identifying the value added by bipartite social dialogue, as almost everything was regulated in the labour code and there was little space for collective bargaining”.