A union of values and rights

One of the key questions that divide countries and political parties as regards their stance on Europe today is: What is the European Union’s aim? What are we building together? For some, the European Union should be a common market and nothing more. For others, the dream is one of a federalist state, that is to say a strong political union. The reality today is somewhere between, but it is helpful to review the fundamental values and vision to determine where the EU could be going now.

The vision

The initial European vision was that economic growth would lead to social progress. This is still a current argument today and is known as the ‘’trickle-down effect’’. The European Union’s objective of economic growth and economic cooperation was aiming toward an improvement of living conditions for those living in Europe. Little by little, through for instance the Council Resolution on a social action programme (1974) and the poverty programmes (1975, 1985, 1989), the European Union then extended its vision of its role in social policies. The fruits of economic cooperation (e.g. the single market, and the four freedoms of the EU, namely free movement of goods, services, persons and capital) also created new grounds for the European Union’s addressing of social policies.


The legal instruments

The two initial main legal treaties on which the European Union was based were the Treaty on European Union (TEU; Maastricht Treaty, effective since 1993) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU; Treaty of Rome, effective since 1958). They set out the objectives of the European Union and how it works, establish the EU institutions and the different competences of the Member States and the Union. These treaties have been modified over time and recently through for instance the Treaty of Lisbon (2007).

The European Union and the Member States are bound by those treaties. The EU can only act within the competences granted to it through these treaties. Any change to this framework (these treaties) can only happen with the agreement (signature and ratification) of every single Member State.

  • Article 4 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) sets out the main fields of shared competence in social policy, ranging from workers’ health and safety to the combating of social exclusion. Details are set out in Title X of the TFEU, article 151, which gives a clear direction and a value-based meaning to economic cooperation. It reads:

    The Union and the Member States, (…) shall have as their objectives the promotion of employment, improved living and working conditions, so as to make possible their harmonisation while the improvement is being maintained, proper social protection, dialogue between management and labour, the development of human resources with a view to lasting high employment and the combating of exclusion. To this end the Union and the Member States shall implement measures which take account of the diverse forms of national practices, in particular in the field of contractual relations, and the need to maintain the competitiveness of the Union’s economy. They believe that such a development will ensue not only from the functioning of the internal market, which will favour the harmonisation of social systems, but also from the procedures provided for in the Treaties and from the approximation of provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action.”

  • Article 3 TFEU sets out the exclusive union competence which covers other areas such as the concluding of international agreements, common fisheries policies, and the monetary policy of eurozone Member States.
  • Social policies and employment policies fall under TFEU Article 5 which states that the EU has competence to “provide arrangements within which EU Member States must coordinate policy“. It means that the primary responsibility for employment and social affairs lies with national governments.

For more information on the European Union’s role in social affairs and employment, refer to the European Commission website here.

The fundamental social objective is further confirmed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) which brings together fundamental rights protected in the EU, including important provisions on civil, political, economic and social rights. The Charter became legally binding on EU institutions and national governments with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty (2009).

The Lisbon Treaty substantially expanded the European Union’s vision, bringing in an emphasis on social cohesion and introducing TFEU Article 9, the “horizontal social clause”, stating that the Union has to take into account […] the guarantee of adequate social protection […] when implementing new policies, viz.

“In defining and implementing its policies and activities, the Union shall take into account requirements linked to the promotion of a high level of employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health. (TFEU Article 9)”. However, it is important to know that this clause does not provide a formal legal basis but is an instrument of “soft law”.

To know more about the horizontal social clause, refer to the interesting work of the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) in TFEU Article 9 here.

For more information on the history of the European Union, visit the EU’s official website here.