Two decades of EU membership: a public service trade union perspective

Ceec Statement

(3 May 2024) 1 May 2024 marks twenty years since a historic ten countries - Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia - joined the European Union. The accession of central and eastern European countries (CEEC) to the EU in 2004 was a landmark moment. After the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989, it symbolised the further coming together of Europe. Much has been achieved and challenges remain.

For public service trade unions, EU membership promised a path to improved working conditions, enhanced workers' rights, and democracy and protection of human and trade union rights. EU social standards have been introduced, including measures related to working time, health and safety at work, non-discrimination, and gender equality. And most recently there has been the legislation on adequate minimum wages, collective bargaining coverage, and on guaranteeing rights for platform workers.

Positive steps towards social and economic cohesion

One achievement of EU membership has been substantial investment in the CEEC through structural and cohesion funds. These funds have assisted in improving infrastructure and some modernising of public services. Much remains to be done with new challenges related to the climate and digital transformations and the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Implementing the right to health and the right to care, or improving the quality of public administrations to ensure effective labour inspectorates, environmental protection agencies or tax administrations requires continued investment and cooperation.

Public service pressures

Despite these positive developments, problems remain. Economic disparities between the CEEC and western EU countries have persisted, impacting the quality of public services. Public service workers often find themselves on the front lines, dealing with the fallout of underfunded and overstretched services.

The implementation of austerity measures, particularly following the 2008 financial crisis, has placed additional strain on public services in the CEEC  as elsewhere. Budget cuts and fiscal constraints have led to job losses, wage freezes, and increased workloads for public service workers, sparking protests and strikes. Trade unions have been critical of these measures, arguing that they undermine the quality of public services and the welfare of workers. We are concerned that the new economic governance rules will exacerbate these pressures.

Another area of concern has been the slow progress in some CEEC towards fully embracing social dialogue and collective bargaining. Many countries see low levels of collective bargaining coverage. Improving this coverage is a key priority for EPSU and trade unions. Our organising work will assist.

Future

The role of public service trade unions in shaping a fair, inclusive, and sustainable Europe cannot be overstated. The EU's commitment to a social market economy and the European Pillar of Social Rights offers a path to advance social justice for all, not for the few.

To build on the achievements of the past 20 years, strengthening social dialogue at both the national and EU levels is key. Public service trade unions should be active participants in discussions about the future of work, digitalisation, and the transition to a green economy, ensuring that these transformations benefit all Europeans.

Moreover, the EU and its member states must continue to invest in the CEEC, not only to reduce economic disparities but also to support the modernisation of public services. These lessons are relevant in the work we do with unions in the countries that are currently negotiating membership, such as in the Western Balkans, Moldova and Ukraine.

Note: The simultaneous accessions were Cyprus, the Czech RepublicEstoniaHungaryLatviaLithuaniaMaltaPolandSlovakia, and Slovenia. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. Trade unions from those countries and from the candidate countries and beyond have been integrated into EPSU’s work since our Congress in 2009.

 

Read the ETUC’s statement here.

The ETUI has done much research on different aspects of EU enlargement. Read more here.

See some facts and figures from the European Commission here.

Cyprus Czech Republic Estonia Hungary Latvia Lithuania Malta Poland Slovak Republic Slovenia