This critical issue is about to tested in the European Courts of Justice when a two-year-old case brought by the ferry company Viking Line is to be given an oral hearing. Viking Line wants to replace the Finnish crew of one its vessels, the Rosella (which ferries between Helsinki and Tallinn, the Estonian capital) with cheaper Estonian labour. The Finnish Seamen's Union, backed by the UK's International Transport Workers' Federation, has threatened industrial action. Viking hopes to use a court injunction to prevent this.
There are two core EU principles at odds in this dispute. On the one hand, there are the 'freedom of establishment' rules (article 43 of the European Community Treaty) that allow businesses to set-up wherever they wish in the EU. On the other hand, there is the EU's social policy which is designed to protect workers' rights to take collective action to protect conditions of employment.
Half of the EU's members states have put in submissions to the court. The older members such as France have been reported to have upheld social rights whilst newer members such as Poland probably support the business side of the argument. The UK is understood to have taken the most provocative line in support of business, arguing that there is no principle of EU law that gives social policy rights any primacy over other provisions in the EC Treaty.
The judgment, when it comes in several months, will help determine the kind of Europe that develops in future - one that backs business or the workers.
A Viking sea battle to rock the EU boat
By Nikki Tait
2 January 2007
Review by Morice Mendoza