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It gives me great pleasure to open this conference, which is being held during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.
I would have very much liked to welcome you in person in Berlin – but unfortunately, due to the worsening COVID-19 situation, a virtual conference is the safest choice right now.
I bid a very warm welcome to each and every one of you. I especially want to welcome the newly elected President of the European Economic and Social Committee, Christa Schweng.
Later on, Ms. Schweng will together with the two rapporteurs brief us on the Committee’s opinion.
I warmly congratulate you on your election, Ms. Schweng!
In these times of crisis, the topics of participation rights and social dialogue are much talked about, in ways no one would have predicted. It is my hope that our initiatives will help Europe master the present-day challenges, and that we will emerge stronger from the coronavirus crisis.
Participatory models have already paid off in the past. I need only mention the instrument of working time accounts that was developed in Germany’s automotive sector during the financial crisis. This enabled us to save a great number of jobs during the 2008/2009 economic and financial crisis.
The respective regulations were first developed by the social partners themselves. Today, they have become standard practice, also far beyond Germany’s borders.
In this crisis, too, expectations are being placed on the social partners. On 14 October, the EU Tripartite Social Summit focused on the significance of social dialogue during the crisis.
On that occasion, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel emphasised a point also made by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel – namely, that dialogue between governments and social partners is of fundamental importance.
Federal Chancellor Merkel underscored that the European Union can only face down the pandemic if it has the support of the social partnership. Social partners have rarely been needed more than during this pandemic.
This conference is therefore being held at an opportune moment. And our analyses are truly in keeping with the times.
Yet tremendous challenges also lie ahead. In Europe, business and company participation by employees and their representatives takes many forms in the various EU member states.
The right of employees to participate in company decision-making is enshrined in law in only 18 of the 27 EU member states. Co-determination as it is practised in Germany is only one form of social dialogue. Other countries have developed structures that are based on their respective traditions and legal systems.
However, the current forms of participation are constantly facing new challenges:
Working life has changed fundamentally in recent years and decades. New forms of work have emerged – as have various new forms of enterprise structure.
The rule book for co-determination and other forms of participation was largely drawn up during the industrial era. The systems of participation in the world of work that we have in the European Union were to a large extent established 50 years ago. Therefore, they need to be revised and adapted in some areas.
For example, we must reconsider the definition of the term “employee” and where a line should be drawn separating it from new forms of employment. We must make sure that employment contracts correspond to the actual form of employment.
We also need to think about how to strengthen employees in the grey area between dependent and independent employment, as well as freelancers in situations where major power imbalances prevail.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The key point I want to make as this conference gets under way is that new forms of enterprise must not be used to undermine participation rights. It is therefore in our common interest to achieve the greatest possible alignment of standards within the EU in this regard.
The exploratory opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee is intended as advice for the institutions and bodies of the EU. It will help us build Europe’s future through participation – and ultimately achieve a Union that serves the best interests of everyone involved. I therefore look forward to today’s discussion of this study.
Thank you very much.