Select Committee on European Union Fourteenth Report


16.  A controversial issue in the deliberations of the Working Group was the possible extension of qualified majority voting (QMV) to areas of social policy where unanimity is required at present. Most members of the Group advocated the extension of QMV, either across the board or with the exception of provisions relating to social security schemes and to conditions of employment for third country nationals (where unanimity would still apply). These members saw the shift to QMV as essential on account of enlargement. An active minority of members (including British representatives) on the other hand opposed such extension, arguing that, for reasons of national diversity reflecting the particular traditions and cultures of Member States, QMV should not be extended to social security and employment relations, where Member States have different systems. As a result of this disagreement, the consensus reached by the Group was limited to the position that, as a minimum, the compromise achieved in the Nice Treaty should be upheld.[23] The Nice Treaty authorises the Council to agree unanimously a changeover into co-decision and QMV specifically for the protection of workers where their employment contract is terminated, for representation and collective defence of the interests of workers and employers, and for conditions of employment for legally resident third country nationals.

17.  This difference of opinion regarding the extension of QMV to social policy was also reflected in the evidence we received. Support for the extension of QMV came from the TUC[24] and the Commission. The Commission highlighted the strong majority in the Working Group and the Convention Plenary in favour of such extension and noted that decision-making in the social field cannot be divorced from the wider issue of decision-making under the Constitutional Treaty. It argued that, "in a Union of 25 and more, we should not pretend that a competence constrained by the need for unanimity would be a real competence: the competence will be a 'virtual competence' only". In its view the Nice compromise fell short of what was required: as social policy is "unquestionably a core task of the Union", all relevant provisions should be subject to co-decision and QMV. The Commission supported QMV extension in Article 13 EC (non-discrimination) and Article 42 EC (social security measures to ensure free movement), but accepted that Article 137 EC (the core social policy provision covering mostly employment issues) "lies at the frontier between key areas of EU activity in the social field, and what is clearly a national responsibility for the fundamental principles governing social security systems and their financing". It argued that a reworking and modernisation of the Article could help to address Member States' sensitivities and pave the way to acceptance of QMV.[25]

18.  Both the Government and the CBI[26] were opposed to the extension of QMV in the social field. The Government believe that the Nice compromise needs to be tested before any changes are contemplated. They are not convinced that more QMV will create more and better jobs or help further alleviate social exclusion. In their view unanimity has not been a bar to the adoption of necessary legislation in the social field and allows proportionate legislation to be adopted which respects the diversity of national traditions in EU Member States.[27]

19.  The Government's concerns about the challenge that QMV may pose to national traditions and national social policy and to systems of industrial relations in the Member States are understandable. These concerns are exacerbated by the fact that, as noted above, the Working Group missed the opportunity to clarify what falls under Community competence in the area of social policy and what is reserved for the Member States. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether the retention of unanimity is viable way in view of enlargement. The Government argue that, in a Union whose membership ranged from six to 15, unanimity has not been a bar to the adoption of legislation in the social policy field. The only example of such legislation that Mr Hain could offer, however, was Regulation 1408/71 relating to social security, a proposal adopted more than 30 years ago when there were only six Member States in the European Community. This is a measure that, because of the need for unanimity, left a number of issues unresolved and has probably given rise to more litigation in the social policy field than any other. There have been other measures agreed under unanimity voting since then—the new Race Directive is the most recent example. But with the EU enlarged to 25 Member States unanimous agreement in this area will be extremely difficult to achieve and the Commission's concerns on the creation of what may be merely a "virtual" EU competence in social policy must be taken seriously. Any discussion on extending QMV in social policy must, however, be accompanied by an attempt to clarify EU competence in this field.

23   Paragraphs 6 and 59 of the Working Group's report. Back

24   p 18. Back

25   p 14. Back

26   p 10. Back

27   p 2. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003