The legal process has difficulty in keeping pace with progress in European integration, technological change and the organisation of work. These changes require new mechanisms of social organisation parallel to legislation and State regulation. The social and cultural traditions of the Member States make it possible to build a European model of consensus, reconciling economic effectiveness and social solidarity. The social partners can play a crucial role in this process, both through cooperation between the state, employers and the trade unions on economic and social policies, and through the establishment of relations based on agreement between employers and the trade unions. The Economic and Social Committee [see section 4.2.3], which is composed of employers' representatives, workers' representatives and other interest groups, is the oldest and most institutional provider of the opinions of the social partners to the decision-making bodies [see sections 4.3 and 4.4].
The social dialogue which was under way from the beginning of the Community was consecrated first by the Single European Act and then by the Treaty establishing the European Community. The treaty of Lisbon declares that the Union recognises and promotes the role of the social partners at its level, taking into account the diversity of national systems. It facilitates dialogue between the social partners, respecting their autonomy. The Tripartite Social Summit for Growth and Employment contributes to social dialogue (Article 152 TFEU).
At general European level the social partners are represented by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Union of Industries of the European Community (Business Europe) and the European Centre of Public Enterprises (CEEP). The Tripartite Social Summit for Growth and Employment is intended to ensure that there is continuous consultation between the Council, the Commission and the social partners on economic, social and employment matters [Decision 2003/174, see also section 13.3.1]. The summit consists of representatives, at the highest level, of the Council Presidency, the two subsequent Presidencies, the Commission and the social partners.
At sectoral level, the social dialogue is promoted through the Sectoral Dialogue Committees, which are established in those sectors where the social partners make a joint request to take part in a dialogue at European level, and where the organisations representing both sides of industry fulfil certain criteria [Decision 98/500]. Since 1995, the Commission and the social partners have set up, in Florence, the European Centre for Industrial Relations (ECIR) [COM/95/445].
The dialogue between social partners may lead to common opinions and/or, should the partners so desire, to contractual relations, including agreements. Such agreements may be implemented either in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour in each Member State or, in matters concerning working conditions, at the joint request of the signatory parties, by a Council decision on a proposal from the Commission (Article 155 TFEU, ex Article 139 TEC). Thus, the social partners negotiated and signed, on 14 December 1995, a collective agreement, that entitles both male and female workers to unpaid parental leave. Implementing the revised Framework Agreement concluded on 18 June 2009 by the social partners, a new Directive entitles men and women workers to an individual right to parental leave for at least a period of four months on the grounds of the birth or adoption of a child to take care of that child until a given age up to eight years to be defined by Member States and/or social partners [Directive 2010/18].