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Industrial relations in a post-Brexit Europe

Unionised UK businesses will wonder what the future holds for UK unions if, as expected, the UK exits the EU and its relatively socialist model of employment relations. 

UK trade unions have for decades made good use of the EU to help promote an agenda in favour of workers way beyond anything that may have occurred in the UK otherwise.

The social partnership model in Europe places unions in a key bargaining position to influence legal reforms to help ordinary people, and that is what we have seen happening for the last 16 years in particular since the UK decided under the Blair Government to opt into the Social Chapter and absorb the legislation the EU had been developing without UK input for several years since Maastricht.

The working people of the UK probably underestimate what the EU has been doing for them, aided by unions across the EU.  Time will tell how much of the protection and advantages the EU has brought about will unravel in the UK post-Brexit, though much turns on what new arrangements are made and whether EU laws will go on being applicable in the UK as well they might.

In the meantime, HR professionals working with EU countries know how complex dealings with HR matters in the EU can be, and how far apart the national rules and practice seem to be despite the harmonisation of some elements of employment law.

In all probability Brexit will be negative for UK unions as they will face difficulty in urging legal reforms on a relatively unreceptive UK Government which has a lot else to focus on.  Their role will be perhaps to place most focus on the day job of representing their members in the workplaces of the UK and to battling with what may be a tough period of cut backs.

Yet the many relationships which unions have made across the EU and elsewhere are not going to vanish, and collaboration between unions in the EU and globally has continued to grow over the years. Hence even if UK unions become displaced from their formal lobbying and collaborating roles in the EU, their co-operation with European unions will not stop and that will be relevant to all employers working across the EU.

Union structures and agreements vary a lot around the EU, and in continental Europe some 62% of employees are on average covered by collective bargaining arrangements. This is on top of the works councils normal in some EU countries. Across the founding member states of the EU collective bargaining is typically conducted at industry level, and there are confederations of unions who may indeed be rivals and at times in dispute with each other.

Thus a UK based employer cannot assume the UK approach can easily be translated into the EU. Despite decades of EU membership by the UK, national differences of approach in industrial relations and levels of employee protection remain surprisingly strong. Indeed the UK has always been like a halfway house between the US and the EU, being a mix of both in practice. Many countries outside the EU who want to trade in the EU if and when the UK has left will have some culture shock facing EU rules and unions having in the past been able to operate in the relatively benign UK industrial relations environment.


Monica Atwal

Managing Partner

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+44 118 960 4605

Chambers and Partners

The Clarkslegal team are commercial and good to work with. They get what our business needs and tell me what I need to hear.

This means that advantages of UK relatively employer friendly legislation will remain a factor attracting overseas employers, particularly from the US, who worry at the obligations they may face if establishing and employing significantly in continental Europe.

It is therefore an opportunity for HR professionals to protect and promote the advantages of UK employment laws and practices, to be able to explain and contrast the likely legal and trade union challenges in the EU, and to be able to show that it will continue to be best for employment reasons alone to base operations and engage staff so far as possible within the UK whatever the final shape of Brexit.

Michael Sippitt

Forbury People


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This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full General Notices on our website.

Monica Atwal

Managing Partner

View profile

+44 118 960 4605

About this article

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