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6 December 2016

12 years after enlargement: are differences in labour markets and industrial relations here to stay?

Over a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than ten years after the enlargement of the European Union, the central and eastern European countries (CEECs) still show marked differences to the rest of Europe in the field of labour, work and industrial relations.

This was the theme of the recently published book Labour and Social Transformation in Central and Eastern Europe which was presented at an ETUI seminar on 25 November. The book, edited by Violaine Delteil, associate professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, and Vassil Kirov, associate professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and ETUI associate researcher, sheds light on the ‘big transformation’ as well as the more minor, micro-political and sociological transformations that have taken place in the field of labour relations and labour market institutions.

As Vassil Kirov explained, this book goes beyond the usual selection of countries and contains a variety of approaches to emphasise the specificities of the national models. Violaine Delteil noted that although the transition and the accession to the European Union to a great extent contributed to the weakening of the traditional trade unions in those countries, it also awakened new labour forces, new strategies for lobbying and new alliances with social movements.

ETUI senior researcher Martin Myant, who has also contributed to the book, underlined the important role trade unions have played in creating the legal framework for employment relations. He pointed out however that this remains hard to enforce due to declining membership and the reality of a ‘dependent’ economy.

Slavina Spasova, researcher at the European Social Observatory, believed the book’s main achievement was that it “captures the plurality but also the specificity of the different situations and, at the same time, raises some philosophical reflections on the long-expected return to Europe.”

Guglielmo Meardi, director of the Industrial Relations Research Unit at Warwick Business School looked more in depth at the fate of the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ acquis communautaire in the new Member States. According to him, people on both sides of the enlargement border were convinced that social standards would improve after the accession and that the acquis communautaire would prevent social dumping and lead to social convergence in the long run. Unfortunately none of that turned out to be true. Instead, since 2004 the development of European legislation in the social field has been interrupted for the whole EU. By the time the ‘soft’ European employment strategy had reached the new Member States it was already in the “Lisbon sauce”, meaning that flexibility and efficiency were prioritised over security and inclusion.

ETUI labour law researcher Zane Rasnača reminded the audience that although legal transfers may not always work, in this case these measures would have been better implemented if the new Member States had participated in the drafting process, and this in turn may have led to future post-enlargement measures producing different results.

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