European Works Councils after Brexit: Institutional Stability, Change and Demise in Transnational Employment Relations (EWCaB)


What is it about?

This research project between Ruhr University Bochum (Lead), Cardiff University and the Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales Paris examines the impact of Brexit on European Works Councils (EWCs). EWCs provide employees with consultation and information rights in multinational companies (MNCs) operating in the European Union (EU). The decision of the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the EU had implications for EWCs as it concerned two threshold conditions of the EWC legislation namely the existence of sites in at least two European countries with 150 employees and a required total European company size of 1,000 employees. Brexit meant that some MNCs with subsidiaries in the UK no longer met these conditions.

What is the theoretical background?

The project uses the lens of institutional theory. An important notion of this literature is that institutions have regulatory, normative and cultural dimensions. The regulatory dimension refers to the EWC legislation that defines rights and obligations for employees and companies. Within this regulatory frame, actors develop practices, norms and ideas that are specific to their enactment of the EWC legislation on the company-level. A key puzzle of this research project is: What happens to an EWC after the regulatory dimension breaks away? One possibility is that an EWC ceases to exist, e.g. management might insist on the regulatory thresholds to be met. Another possibility is that the past work and experiences between EWCs and management shape norms, routines and ideas, enabling the continuation of an EWC.

What is the state of the art and what preliminary work has been done?

Past research in institutional theory had a key focus on institutional change. We go beyond this focus and inquire how institutions are transformed, maintained or abandoned, focusing on institutional change, stability and demise. A key task is to identify the drivers, factors and actors that explain these institutional processes in the wake of Brexit. In preparation for the research project, the Ruhr University Bochum research team conducted initial research on EWCs in Germany affected by Brexit, which showed that some EWCs and management negotiated complementary agreements to replace EU legislation, while others struggled to keep their British colleagues on the board. On this basis, the project will interrogate such adjustment processes across 16 in-depth case studies of EWCs (about 128 interviews) with employee representatives, unions, and management.

What is the contribution of the project?

The project makes several key contributions. First, no previous research has examined the impact of Brexit on EWCs and thus we break new empirical ground. Second, we contribute to the theoretical literature by explaining how institutions continue, change or demise when regulatory foundations disappear, reaching beyond the well-developed literature on change, and specify mechanisms that maintain institutions and explain their stability or demise. Third, the project has an engagement and impact dimension with workshops in France, Germany and the UK to provide advice for practitioners on how to deal with Brexit, which will feed back into adaptation processes on the company-level, impacting employment relations.

Research funding:

This project is funded by the seventh round of research the social sciences in the open research area (ORA). ORA is based on an agreement between the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR; France), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; Germany), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC; UK) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC; Canada).


Talks and Publications:

  • Press release on the presentation of the latest research findings: Brexit Impact on European Works Councils and Societas Europaea Works Councils - ILERA 27/06/2024, New York City Pressemitteilung Dfg Projekt
  • Upcoming Panel Discussion on Global Trade and Working Conditions: Comprehensive Tools for Global Governance. Participants: Prof. Dr. Carla Spinelli, Dr. Samantha Velluti, Dr. Patrick Witzak and Franz Ebert. Labour Law Research Network 6 Poland, Warsaw 2023.
  • Witzak, P., Hertwig, M., Kahmann, M., Guillas-Cavan, K. and Hauptmeier, M. (09/2022). European Works Councils after Brexit: New Challenges for Transnational Employee Representation? 13th European Regional Congress of the International Labour and Employment Relations Association, Universitat Autònoma Barcelona.
  • Witzak, P., M. Hertwig, T., R., Blache, M., Hauptmeier, M., Kahmann and K., Guillas-Cavan (2022). European Works Councils after Brexit: New Challenges for Transnational Employee Representation? In Abstract Book ILERA European Congress 2022 Industrial relations and the Green Transition; Towards inclusive and sustainable growth. pp. 38-39. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Institut d’Estudis del Treball Centre d’Estudis Sociològics sobre la Vida Quotidiana i el Treball, 08193 Bellaterra (Barcelona) Spain.


Project Team Ruhr University Bochum:

Project Team Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales Paris:

Project Team Cardiff University: