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EU ‘Social’ Policy From Employment Law to Labour Market Reform

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Depending on your perspective, EU social policy is either regarded as the soft bit of EU law, an essential component of citizenship, or a key element to ensure a level playing field in the EU’s single market. As we shall see, while there is an identifiable body of law which can loosely be described as ‘labour’ or ‘social’ policy, the coverage of social policy is far from comprehensive, and certainly does not represent a replication of national social policy on the EU stage. Many would argue that this is right, that social policy, of all areas, needs to be delivered close to those affected by it and so should not be a matter for the European Union at all. This raises the question, then, as to the role of, and justification for, EU-level ‘social’ policy, a question that has bedevilled the EU since its inception. This chapter presents four stories about EU social policy. The first, and easiest to relate, is the historical evolution of social policy where the different stages are signposted by the various Treaty amendments. It is a story of phases of great activity matched by lengthy periods of inertia (Part B). The second story concerns the contribution of the Court of Justice to the development of a distinctive EU social policy. While traditionally the Court has generally been seen as a supporter of the development of social rights, its true understanding of social issues has been brought into question by the controversial decisions in Viking and Laval, although subsequent events have forced something of a reassessment (Part C). The third story—for a lawyer at least—is much harder to relate because it is a story about a reorientation of approach to regulating the labour market in the EU. It is a story that cannot be told through hard law measures on employment law, but through a myriad of documents on employment policy (Part D). The fourth story is a story of challenges: about new forms of work, about the EU’s response to three crises (financial, covid and Brexit) and about a timid renaissance of social policy in the form of the Pillar of Social Rights (Part E).



EU ‘Social’ Policy From Employment Law to Labour Market Reform


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ESRC (ES/T000716/1)