European Integration and the Welfare State

European Social Policy: From "Rome" to "Maastricht"

History of European Social Policy - The Social Dialogue from Rome through the Single European Act (SEA)and the Treaty of Maastricht (TEU):

by Rhianon Visinsky

What are, were the main actors in the European social dialogue? Given an overview of the development of the EU social policy from Rome to Amsterdam -- what were the milestones and big ideas? Which strategies did they pursue? When and how did the narrowly defined social provision in the Rome treaty become social policies. What were the original social issues and to what extent was the scope extended? When did social policy become a binding goal of the European Community/Union? What were the active/direct ways (directives, court cases) in which the EC shaped the social agenda of member states, what were the negative/indirect ways (preemptions, pressures) in which this was taking place? What were the changes brought on by the SEA and the TEU, especially, the social charter/protocol.

When six countries in Europe united to form an economic community 1950s, they concentrated strictly upon creating a common market. The Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957 by the six European countries of Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, France, and Italy, and created the European Economic Community (EEC). Little attention was given to issue concerning social policy. However, harmonizing European economics depended upon giving the people the ability to work flexibly within the active European labor market. Because the market is dependent upon people, issues such as these become important to the development of the economic union. This was achieved in a long and complex process in which the member states of the European Community deepened their mutual economic integration and gradually branched out into new policy areas. Specifically the Single European Act (1887) and the Treaty of the European Union (TEU 1992) also known as the Treaty of Maastricht, and the later Amsterdam Treaty (1997) would expand into political as well as social policy. From the Treaty of Rome to the TEU, social policy has progressed from lofty statements with no real power, to binding legal requirements and concrete policy measures developed by the European Union and interpreted by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In the beginning, social policy was not a major concern of the EEC. Solving the post war economic problems was much more important to the initial member states. However, elements in the Treaty of Rome would later serve as the basis for the social policy enacted by the European Union (EU). Initially the EEC did not incorporate social policy measures into the Treaty of Rome because the member states, specifically Germany and France, could not agree on the role of social policy within the EEC. The difficulty lay in the historical development of social policies within each member state. Deep seated beliefs and policy structures could not be eliminated, or changed enough to satisfy all member states involved. As a result, social policies were left in the domain of the national governments because the systems in Europe varied too widely for cohesion. However, it was a future goal of the European Community to continue to pursue integration by both deepening and widening their union.

However, the Treaty of Rome handed the power of initiating new policies to the European Commission. It was, thus, able to branch out into new policy areas and also to promote the close cooperation between member states in the realm of social policy. Article 118 of the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community deals with this issue. Close cooperation was defined by the Commission to mean the harmonization of every member states' social security and working conditions, as well as areas such as equal pay for men and women, labor law, unionizing, and collective bargaining. Although the Commission was given some power to initiate policies and to act as a go-between among ensuing member states, the real responsibility for social policy continued to remain in the hands of the sovereign countries.

The EEC's progress in social policy was slow, and seemed to progress in a series of fits and starts. However the basis laid in the Treaty of Rome and subsequent economic harmonization "spilled over" into the social policy field. A possible opening for advancing social policy was Article 235. It stated that if some measure of social policy was required to achieve an economic objective, then the Council could take action, which however required unanimity among member states. As this was nearly impossible to attain, progress in this area was painfully slow often resulting in gridlock. One way to circumvent the problem was not to treat any such social issues as a matter of social policy. Instead social issues were considered under Articles 48-52 of the Rome Treaty, which provided for the free movement of workers, services, capital, and goods, this was important to achieve an efficient integrated market. Allowing for the free movement of production factors also meant allowing workers to take their benefits with them. It also prevented social discrimination in the member states to which they moved.

In time the members of the EC saw that social issues were becoming ever more central to the future of the Community. In 1987 the Single European Act (SEA), which entailed the creation of a Single Market, marked a significant advance as member states were interested in further deepening the economic integration. Social policy constituted an important topic during the negotiations yet remained secondary to any economic concerns. Nevertheless, the Commission pushed for an explicit social dimension to accompany the proposed Internal Market. When the Commission's proposals were rejected, it made a push for a European social charter to be included in the Treaty of the European Union (Maastricht Treaty).

While the social charter ran afoul with the British veto and was ultimately not part of the TEU, the Maastricht process did signal progress: specifically, the TEU established three landmark changes in the field of social policy. First, the Commission was granted the power to create a dialogue between social partners, which proved vital for creating a framework for European social policy negotiation. The social partners, initially representing labor and management, had little to do with the policy making process of the EC. However by involving them in the negotiations, their role began to expand significantly. Secondly, some areas of social policy were opened up to qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Council. This allowed for advanced in policy, by having a means of overcoming the constant dead-lock in the form of a member veto (usually a British veto). Finally and most importantly, the Social Charter was agreed upon by 11 member states, which granted the United Kingdom an opt out. Margaret Thatcher's persistent opposition to what she regarded as socialism through the back door had constantly blocked progress in this area. Without the UK, the remaining member states were able to advance much more quickly.

In order to summarize the achievement of the EC/EU social policy up to the Maastricht Treaty, we need to begin with Articles 117 and 118 of the Treaty of Rome. This directed member states to improve working conditions and living conditions within their borders. The Treaty also set out to improve the status of workers which, in turn, would promote the common market and ensure the success of the economic community. While noting these broad goals, the Treaty of Rome also provided for the Commission to act as the initiator of close cooperation between member states concerning their social policies in all matters employment, working conditions, social security, labor law, industrial relations, and the safety of the workplace. These clauses provided the basis for all future social policy to be incorporated into the Common Market and later the Single Market. Although the Commission's defined role was formally limited to that of assisting member states and of offering advice, it acted as a shrewd political entrepreneur that often took advantage of its superior resources and better access to information. Moreover, The Treaty of Rome allows the ECJ to interpret and expand the clauses dealing with social policy.

In fact, in the evolution of European social policy, the ECJ was critical: the Treaty of Rome contained some social policy provisions that were either not operative and merely a declaratory statement (equal pay for men and women) or subject to very different interpretations by the member states. By giving force to these dormant clauses in the Treaty and by providing authoritative interpretations, the ECJ imposed supra-national harmonization over nationally instituted welfare regimes. A famous example of this is found in the ECJ's ruling regarding Articles 119 and 120, which provided equal work and vacation pay for men and women. Another important development was the establishment of European Social Funds (under Articles 123-128) which helped finance the training and relocation of workers.

In general, the real responsibility for all social policy lay in the hands of the member states themselves. The only way that any social policy could be brought into the European arena was to demonstrate its repercussions for the functioning of the market. It was specifically Article 100 of the Rome Treaty, which made broad allowances for any policy to be enacted as long as it was proven necessary to the future of the common market. This opened the door for the Commission to be active in establishing plausible links between a proposed social agenda and Common Market imperative. Until the 1990s, however, many Commission proposals were blocked by the persistent hindrance of the unanimous voting requirements of the pre-Maastricht legislative process.

The biggest accomplishment in social policy prior to the Maastricht Treaty was the recognition of the need for the harmonization of all national level social policies. This was the direct consequence of the objective in the Rome Treaty and reaffirmed in the SEA that an internal market required the aforementioned four freedoms. With the freedom of capital to move between the member states, the industries could relocate and promote business. Workers could follow the industry and find work outside of their own member states. These workers were able to maintain their claims to social benefits where they would go. Otherwise they would not want to relocate for fear of losing all that they had previously established.

There were many subsequent legislative measures enacted to ensure harmonization. The first of such measures dealt with migrants and their social security rights. However, not the national systems as much were harmonized but rather workers were enabled to collect benefits wherever they worked in the EU. Other measures concerned gender equality. Following the ECJ ruling in the Defrenne Case, the Council started to draft legislation. In 1975, the Council enacted a Directive for equal pay for men and women for work of equal value. In the following year, the Directive was extended to all employment conditions pertaining to the sexes. 1979 saw a Directive enacted which intended to prevent the discrimination of workers from other EC countries in national social security systems. Subsequently in 1986, two more Directives were passed, which provided for equal treatment for men and women in the realm of occupational social security and self-employment.

Prior to 1987, unanimous voting requirements did not allow for progress. However, in 1987 the SEA was established as the first major revision of the Treaty of Rome. While the economy remained the primary concern for the revision, social policy was beginning to gain ground as an important issue to the future of the European Economic Community. The SEA established the Internal Market Programme, which was to further integrate the European economies. As noted above, the SEA allowed the Commission in Article 118b to develop dialogue between labor and management at the European level. Moreover, the SEA opened up new policy areas that could be defined as important for the internal market to qualified majority voting (QMV). This included the health and safety of workers, which was considered to be of great importance to the Internal Market. For the first time member states could be forced to accept some provision even if it was against their noted objections. Although prior to the SEA some legislation had been passed in the area of the health and safety of workers. It dealt with protecting workers against exposure to emissions. Another measure intended to protect persons against being exposed to chemical, biological, and physical agents. However, Directives were only adopted if they were not perceived to have a negative impact on the national rules. Following the SEA, new measures were geared toward harmonizing national social policy regimes. These included special protection for workers who were pregnant, breast-feeding, as well as young workers. The intention was to protect workers that were most likely to work in another Member State, those in the construction sector and in services. Another Directive forced employers to notify their employees regarding intended changes of the employment relationship. The Working Time Directive called for break periods for workers during their shifts, for weekly days off, and yearly vacation time.

When the SEA went into effect, it had cascading consequences in many other policy areas. The Community Charter of Social Rights was one of the most important subsequent developments, which was proposed by the Commission in 1989. After months of often bitter debate, due to the objections of the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher, the Social Charter was adopted by the eleven of the twelve member states. While the Social Charter was initially only a declaration of principles that applies to workers only, and not all citizens of the EEC, it was a very important step in the development of European social policy. For the first time social policy was elevated to a level equal to the economic matters in the European Community. The member states saw the completion of the Internal Market as something that depended heavily on improvements to be made in the area of social policy. It also meant that from that moment on, that social policy dialogue was present in all Single Market matters.

From the Treaty of Rome to the TEU, social policy had undergone substantial changes. In the beginning social issues were judged to be of little concern to the functioning of the economic community. However in time this was proven incorrect, as there was a stronger than expected correlation between economic progress, market integration, and social harmonization. The SEA brought about the most significant change in the role of European social policy prior to the Maastricht Treaty. Subsequently, social policy was seen as an issue of co-equal importance to economic matters. Yet until Maastricht the implementation of social policy was hindered by the need for unanimity in the Council when voting on social legislation. An Intergovernmental Conference (ICG) was held in Maastricht in 1990, which resulted in the Treaty of the European Union. Aimed at laying the groundwork for a full economic, monetary, and political union. The TEU or Maastricht Treaty allowed for progress in social policy matters, especially because the UK had opted out. Thus, it could no longer veto proposals from the Commission dealing with social policy. Without the UK, QMV was extended to issues other than the safety and health of workers. These matters included working conditions and equality of the sexes in regards to and their treatment opportunities for work. The TEU also enabled the Commission to become the main architect of social policy in conjunction with the social partners. The role of the social partners' dialogue in this process was recognized and deepened through the TEU. In conclusion, the Maastricht Treaty brought about major revisions in the field of European social policy that are bound to shape the development of the European Union and its member states in the years to come.

Rhianon R. Visinsky


Falkner, Gerda. "EU Social Policy in the 1990s: Towards a corporatist community" Routledge, London (1998).

Colucci, M., De Smijter, E., Engels, C., Hendricks, F., Salas, L., "Institutional Changes and European Social Policies after the Treaty of Amsterdam" Prof. R. Blanpain Ed. Kluwer Law International, The Hague (1998).

See also:

SINGLE EUROPEAN ACT - General points

SINGLE EUROPEAN ACT - Article 130A - 130E

SINGLE EUROPEAN ACT - Articles 118a and b