EU social policy: workers without borders

Political battle over social and market priorities takes significant turn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with French president Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace last week. Macron has championed reform of the EU Posted Worker Directive as part of his plans to change French labour laws. Photograph: Kamil Zihnioglu/AP

The political battle over social and market priorities in the European Union took a significant turn last week when social affairs ministers agreed a compromise on reforming the 21-year-old Posted Worker Directive. Originally agreed to regulate conditions for employees from one country working temporarily in another, it has become a contentious issue for trade unions and also for populists who believe it undermines employment rights. More detailed negotiations will soon establish tighter controls for the two million workers involved.

Reform of the directive has been championed by French president Emmanuel Macron as part of his plans to change French labour laws. Fears that the directive was used to undermine them played a role in France's rejection of the European constitution in 2005. Macron needs this change to convince trade unions of his good faith and deprive the far-right Front National of a campaigning issue. He has support from most member-states despite opposition from Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, which argue they will lose competitive advantage as a result.

The outcome will be taken up by those who say the EU’s policy profile needs to be rebalanced towards more social priorities after the 2008-13 financial crisis. That crash and longer term economic trends linked to globalisation left many communities without industrial employment and with reduced social protection. As a result they are tempted by Eurosceptic populist movements demanding stronger national borders.

A convincing alternative at European level must be found to help national governments offer the enhanced social protection needed to deal with these problems. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed a new agency and inspectorate, a Common Labour Authority, as part of these initiatives.


Additional measures are likely to emerge in forthcoming debates on the EU's future. They deserve close attention and committed participation in Ireland, alongside our necessary Brexit preoccupations.