Bartłomiej Bednarowicz, PhD Researcher at the Faculty of Law of the University of Antwerp
On Thursday, the Council decided that Bratislava will host the headquarters of a brand new EU agency: the European Labour Authority (ELA). The idea for the ELA was spelt out by President Juncker already in September 2017 in his annual State of the Union address. Juncker viewed ELA’s main mission to ensure EU labour mobility in a simple and effective manner and to strengthen fairness and trust in the internal market. Interestingly, the proposal to establish the ELA rolled out of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) and was presented as a part of the Social Fairness Package, together with a proposal for a Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions in the EU (adopted by the Council on the very same day as the Regulation establishing the ELA; see discussion of the Directive here), a proposal for a Council Recommendation for access to social protection for workers and the self-employed and a Commission Communication on the monitoring on the implementation of the EPSR.
In a speedy manner, in March 2018 the Commission put forward a legislative proposal to establish the European Labour Agency and on Valentine’s Day in 2019, the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council reached a provisional agreement and changed the name from Agency to Authority. Finally, in June 2019, the Council adopted the proposal for a Regulation and selected Slovakia to host the Authority. The ELA is to start its operations in October 2019 already in Brussels and is expected to reach its full operational capacity in Bratislava by 2024. [Update: the Regulation was published in the EU Official Journal in July 2019]
Pursuant to the Regulation establishing the ELA, the main objective of the Authority is to assist the Member States and the Commission in their effective application and enforcement of EU law related to labour mobility across the EU and the coordination of social security systems. The ELA has the mandate to act only within the scope of selected EU acts in the framework of: posting of workers, free movement of workers, social security coordination, social aspects of road transport and cooperation between the Member States to tackle undeclared work. This catalogue remains closed but can be extended on a basis of any future acts that confer tasks on the Authority. More importantly, to maintain its mandate, the ELA is to neither affect any rights or obligations of individuals or employers that are granted by either EU or national laws, nor the mandate of national authorities responsible for enforcement in these fields.
Furthermore, in order to attain its primary objective, the ELA has been fitted with some additional tasks. Firstly, it is to facilitate access to information on rights and obligations regarding labour mobility across the EU as well as to relevant services. Secondly, it is to promote and enhance cooperation between the Member States in the enforcement of relevant EU law across the Union, including facilitating concerted and joint inspections. Thirdly, it is to mediate and help to look for a solution in cases of cross-border disputes between the Member States. Finally, it is to support cooperation in tackling undeclared work.
Organisation and the seat selection
The European Labour Authority will have a permanent structure comprising of a Management Board (including representatives of the Member States, Commission, European Parliament and social partners), an Executive Director and a Stakeholder Group with purely advisory functions (including representatives of the Commission and social partners). On top of that, the Authority aims at being made up of around 140 staff members, some of them seconded from the Member States. In addition, there will be one national liaison officer seconded from each Member State who will facilitate the cooperation and exchange of information between the Authority and her Member State. The Executive Director, on the other hand, will be appointed for a five-year term by the Management Board from a list of candidates proposed by the Commission, following an open and transparent selection procedure including a hearing before the European Parliament. Finally, the Commission is willing to secure approximately €50 million for the Authority’s annual budget.
As for its seat, 4 Member States competed in the selection process: Slovakia, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Latvia. The Council, in a rather transparent way, steered the selection process and published on its website all the offers prepared by the governments. Then, the European Commission assessed the offers based on the geographical balance, accessibility of the location, availability of the proposed premises and overall city’s readiness to accommodate the needs of international staff. At the Council meeting convoked on 13 June 2019, 23 Member States voted in favour of the Regulation establishing the Authority with its seat in Bratislava, 3 voted against (Austria, Hungary and Sweden) and 2 abstained (Czechia and Poland). Admittedly, it will be the very first EU agency to be located in Slovakia that advertised itself with a rather dull slogan ‘ELA in Slovakia, a good idea’. At least, the ELA’s staff will enjoy the state-of-the-art L12 building at the ‘Eurovea City’ in Bratislava and a stunning view on the Danube river.
An idea for a (pan)-European labour inspectorate has been considered for a long time as simply ‘the wishful thinking’ of some social partners, especially workers organisations. It also has never really attracted a lot of attention, as the Commission feared scoring an own goal due to a lack of the Member States’ support to set up such an agency in the first place. However, the Juncker Commission has finally put the social rights back at the EU agenda and proposed a rather breakthrough initiative in a dazzling form of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The Commission has already delivered quite plenty on the Pillar and mainstreamed many fruitful debates surrounding the social aspects of employment that under the years of austerity and flexicurity have been put aside. The Authority indeed emanates from the EPSR and aligns well with the accompanying proposals presented by the Commission within a broad framework of European Union cross-border employment and the Social Fairness Package.
The potential of the Authority cannot be surely underestimated. Its main advantages can be summarised in three aspects. Firstly, in the field of legal issues of international employment, it will provide the national authorities with some valid operational and technical support, mostly to exchange information, develop some best practices, carry out inspections and also to settle any disputes. Bridging the information and cooperation gap between the Member States is indeed a noble objective and quite a desired one as well. In practice, it is often the case that national authorities are unable to facilitate dialogue with each other and exchange information due to the complex and lengthy internal procedures and the language barrier. Having national liaison officers from all Member States designated to be at the ELA’s disposal will definitely plug that gap and speed things up. Moreover, some national authorities might not have even dreamed of an ability of concerted and joint inspections, which is now a powerful tool in the ELA’s arsenal, subject however, to reaching an agreement between the Authority and the concerned Member State(s).
Secondly, what the enforcement of EU employment and social security law often lacked at national level, were synergies with the already existing EU agencies that would allow to rely on their expertise in areas such as health and safety at work, the management of an undertaking that is being restructured, skills forecasting or tackling undeclared work. Therefore, it is the ELA’s task to facilitate it all to untap the available potential and to strengthen the enforcement levels.
Finally, the Authority will simplify cooperation by integrating a number of existing committees and networks amongst the Member States which will hopefully lead to eliminating fragmentation in that area.
On the other hand, the Authority will definitely not serve as a panacea for all the flaws in the system. The role it will play mostly depends on how active the ELA with its Executive Director decides to be. There is a considerable room to be claimed by the Authority with some space for manoeuvre, but there are some open-ended questions as well. Sceptics and pragmatics may wonder how willing some of the national authorities will be to cooperate within the ELA’s network and agree to, for example, conduct inspections on their territory, which can expose the flaws of their own systems on an EU scale. It is also unsure whether the Member States known for a rather lenient approach towards social security laws will deem it in their best interest to assist ELA with the fight against fraud and abuse on their territories, as no such obligation arises. For them, it could mean the end of their competitive advantage of providing a legal framework for cheaper labour through foxy constructions such as letterbox companies.
Examples from the field of social security coordination and the experience with the Administrative Commission, a body comprising of government representatives, capable of reviewing cases of social fraud between the Member States, do not necessarily instil optimism. The number of successful outcomes of such cases is rather scarce and some national authorities are giving up on the Administrative Commission and often try to take matters in their own hands. Essentially, they reach out on their behalf to the institutions in the other Member States mostly without any tangible end-effects. Moreover, the Authority’s tasks might overlap with those of the Administrative Commission, which was a major point of discussion during the negotiations about the ELA. The exact tasks division, despite indicated as ‘without prejudice’, might prove to be more problematic to delineate and can lead to duplication and competence battles. It is also doubtful how effective the Authority can really be and police the EU labour mobility market consisting of approximately 17 million EU-movers with rather modest resources of 140 staff.
To conclude, as for now, the Authority has baby teeth. It will be up to its adopted strategy, action plans and frankly, leadership to make sure that it will eventually get real teeth. The ELA has definitely promising potential but it remains to be seen how it will be utilised and how big of a dossier can it claim and handle. The expectations are high so we should all give the European Labour Authority a big leap of faith and wait for its very first results.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 20
Photo credit: www.landererova12.sk