The information gathered for this essay on social space and the European Social Chapter was obtained from various sources. These included Internet sites listed in the Bibliography and numerous books and material from the University of Ulster Library.
It will attempt to show how the benefits for and the objectives against the European Social Chapter affect social space within various countries in the European Union.
EUROPEAN SOCIAL SPACE
The idea behind social space within the European Union has highlighted certain areas of concern within countries of the European Union. Employment, industrial health, social costs of industry, labour mobility and social spending within these countries are all elements dealt within European Social Space. Social space also involves education, training, housing and health. Over recent years the issues of social welfare have become extremely important as the EU has grown. One of the main reasons for this is that public expectations have increased rapidly that their governments will play a major role in improving overall quality of life, bringing social affairs firmly into the public domain. It is only over recent years that the idea of Social Space within the European Union has become a vital factor to the expansion of the EC.
National Governments still remain primarily in charge of matters such as mainstream education, personal health care, the value of social security benefits and housing provision as well as national sources of finance. Ministers of education, health and social security now would usually attend specialists Council meetings to agree both European Community policy initiatives and joint activities. However importantly it must be remembered that EC interest is only marginal to the main body of work carried out nationally.
EC Social Policy
The EC Social Policy was introduced to deal with many of the concepts within social space. It has been shaped through provisions found in the Treaty of Rome and the Maastricht Treaty. The Treaty of Rome has been more general in scope whereas the Maastricht agreements have been amended from previous treaties bringing new provisions separately. The reasons these provisions have been separated into the Maastricht Treaty were to reduce confusion from the other treaties. The Social Policy originated in the European Coal and Steel Community (ESCS). This intended to rationalise the two industries so it was therefore obvious that social implications had to be considered. One of the main objectives originally was to promote improved living and working conditions for workers.
Some of the main areas covered by the European Social Policy include the following S.F. Goodman (1990) The European Community Houndmills, Basingstoke P137:
Free movement of workers Youth unemployment
Social security for migrant workers Full employment, co-ordinating policies
Promotion of workers Redeployment of workers in declining industries
Equal rights for men and women Leisure of workers and housing
Health and Safety Integration of migrant workers
Working hours and holidays Help for neediest
Vocational training Industrial democracy, workers participation
Handicapped, elderly workers Rights of working women
These objectives were taken over by the European Community and from this a Social Fund was set up which main objective was to combat unemployment within the community by granting aid to approved schemes such as vocational training and employment support.
The European Social Fund
The European Social Fund was set up by the Treaty of Rome and has been reformed on several occasions. It started as a very limited process assisting migrants from the Italian south to move north into industrial areas. In 1971 a major reform transformed it into a larger and more flexible fund used for training and the needs of different working groups and regions.
The ESF started to become a means of contributing to broader European Community policies and has become well established over the years. The main source of finance has come from the European Community budget. One of the major problems concerned with the ESF was the fact that is had suffered from under funding. This was combated in 1988 when an agreement on budget reform accepted that the budget for the Social Fund would be doubled by 1993 increasing it by at least 80%.
In the early 80s, it was evident that the fund required further adaptation. This took place through concentration mainly with employment and training of men and women under the age of 25 with long unemployment histories. In 1985 money was available for people wishing to become self employed running their own businesses. This became a part of the policy as well as well as other areas such as the ongoing encouragement of handicapped, women and migrant workers who were entitled to various special grants. 1988 brought about another major change within the European social fund speeding up the administration area as it had always been criticised for being slow and inefficient.
The main strength of the European Social Fund is that it can gain resources and target them at disadvantaged areas.
In 1989 legislation about Social rights was formed through the European Social Charter. Many of the provisions within the Social Policy were outlined on this legislation. The Charter was built on the existing Social Charter of the Council of Europe and the conventions of the International Labour Organisation, which eventually lead on to the Social Chapter.
EUROPEAN SOCIAL CHARTER
The European Social Charter was formulated by the Commission and accepted by all Member States of the EC except the UK in December 1989. It was not a legally binding document, but more of a list of proposals to the rights workers within the community should be entitled to. It sought to lay certain social rights that would eventually establish basic minimum conditions.
Arguments For and Against the European Social Charter
At the time it was introduced, the UK Conservative Party opposed the Charter because it disliked such formal controls over businesses. They felt that employers would become more reluctant to take on workers if they feared strict rules from the legislation on wages, hours of work, benefits, etc. It was argued that the social objective of greater employment would be jeopardized by the policies. The way they looked at it was if a company had to sign documentation if they only wanted part time or other workers, they might think twice before recruiting them and try to get by on their existing resources. This would therefore lead to a rise in unemployment that the Conservative government was not willing to risk.
Arguments against this case had included questions on why it was wrong to shift high-wage high cost economies to those with lower standards. Also was there any other more efficient way of generating growth and employment on Europe’s poorer areas. Arguments about how this was a better way to transfer resources from richer to poorer areas also were put forward. If the workers were set better conditions surely it would be the employee at the end of the day that would be better off rather that already large profit making industries. Although it could be looked at differently if the employer was a small business that might not be able to meet minimum standards for the workers conditions outlined in the Charter.
The Single European Act
The Single European Act (SEA) also brought supplementary provisions to the EC Social Policy with the aim of ensuring that certain elements of social progress have progressed alongside the development of the internal market of the European Union.
The main reason the Single European Act came about was the need to develop social provisions necessary for the internal market of the EC. An important statement was taken from it concerning human rights of freedom, equality and social justice. The Single European Act had also agreed to look at the need for improvements in health and safety in the work place.
From the European Social Charter, new legislation was put forward under the heading of the European Social Chapter which aims were to impose many of the provisions mentioned within the Social Charter as legislation that had to be followed.
EUROPEAN SOCIAL CHAPTER
Labour’s Agreement to the Social Chapter
Up until the Labour Government came into power recently, Britain had no intent on signing the European Social Chapter. However Tony Blair had decided that was one of the changes that were going to be made under the new Labour. According to foreign secretary Robin Cook, Britain should not accept that their people should have second class rights compared to other employees on the continent. British people have also demanded to share in the benefits of the Social Chapter in repeated opinion polls.
When the Social Chapter was introduced, it was signed by eleven EC states at Maastricht with only the UK who opted out at that time. Also after Sweden, Finland and Austria joined the EU they signed the Social Chapter as well.
At the present time there have only been two pieces of legislation adopted under the European Social Chapter. These include the Work Council directive requiring employers to notify employees before making major changes on the workplace, and the Parental Leave directive giving parents a maximum of three months unpaid leave after child birth. Several things that have nothing to do with the Social Chapter include the idea of a minimum wage and health and safety part of the Single European Act. This can often cause confusion when dealing with the Social Chapter.
Conservative Opinion on the Social Chapter
The Conservative Party have argued that even though only two pieces of legislation have been passed so far, once the UK signs the European Social Chapter, legislation could be passed by the ‘back door’. What this means generally is that if other European countries were to get a majority vote within the Council of Ministers about certain legislation on social issues, the UK would have to accept this whether or not it benefited from them, which has created cause for concern. To add to this concern, any Acts of Parliament passed under the Social Chapter could not be repealed without the agreement of the Council of Ministers.
Such legislation that could be adopted by qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers could include areas such as improvement of working environment, working conditions, information and consultation of workers and equality between men and women for opportunities and treatment of work. Social legislation to be proposed by the Commission must first be agreed by the Social Partners. These are people who would represent European employers and representatives of European trade unions.
Therefore as discussed the European Social Chapter has been compiled with not only guidelines but legislation that must followed once proposed. Because of this Britain has always been hesitant in the past to sign the European Social chapter in case of the risk of losing out if certain legislation was to pass leading to possible major disadvantages to various employers within the UK.
The arguments for and against the European Social Chapter have demonstrated different points of view within the UK. It seems at the present time that Tony Blair has decided to sign the European Social Chapter therefore the changes within the British community will be seen over the near future. However it still is not completely clear that this will happen because according to article “European Union – United we stand, Together we fall” by Bruce Allen “Prime Minister Tony Blair has raised concern within the European Commission in Brussels and officials in France and Italy with his repeated “heretical” calls for more flexible labour markets as the answer to Europe’s unemployment.”
Whatever the outcome, I personally believe that the Social Chapter should be signed by the UK, giving its workforce the same rights as employees in other countries within the European Community.
Hopefully by signing the legislation, working conditions shall improve and employees will benefit in the UK possibly leading to higher job satisfaction in the workplace.
S.F. Goodman (1990) The European Community Houndmills, Basingstoke P137
Loukis Tsoukalis (1993) The New European Economy Oxford University Press
Ali M. El-Agraa (1994) The Economics of the European Community Harvester Wheatsheaf
S.F. Goodman (1990) The European Community Houndmills
Juliet Lodge (1989) European Community and the Challenge of the Future Printer Publishers Ltd.
Report by Bruce Allen “European Union – United we Stand, Together we Fall” http://184.108.40.206/publications/uk/ba0697.html
BBC Politics 97 “What the Social Chapter Means for Britain”
Image Credits: Photo by Isis França on Unsplash.