Tracing the Fate of EU "Social Policy": Changes in Political Discourse from the "Lisbon Strategy" to "Europe 2020"

By Barbier, Jean-Claude | International Labour Review, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Tracing the Fate of EU "Social Policy": Changes in Political Discourse from the "Lisbon Strategy" to "Europe 2020"


Barbier, Jean-Claude, International Labour Review


Abstract. Analysing selected European Commission and Council documents, this article identifies the changes and enduring features of the EU social policy discourse and investigates their potential determinants. It divides this discourse into three periods: the first is associated with the "Lisbon Strategy", the second with the reforms that followed (2005-09) and the third with "Europe 2020". The most recent period has witnessed a radical marginalization and tokenization of social policy as compared with macroeconomic and financial concerns. At the same time, EU institutions have increasingly encroached upon national jurisdiction over social policy. These changes seem to be explained by reshuffling among important actors.

A study of EU-level social policy could conceivably take many forms. One approach would be to examine the specific programmes and their funding in relation to national and sub-national programmes; alternatively it would be possible to start out from actual policy-making powers and their legal base as enshrined in EU law; a third possibility - the one adopted here - would be to analyse the political discourse around social policy. Concerning the first option, the amount of funding available for social policy at the EU level is negligible in comparison with social expenditure at the national level. As for the second option, jurisdiction over "social matters" is typically exercised at the national or sub-national level. Indeed, EU social policy could be regarded as a realm of discourse par excellence. In this respect, the key innovation of the late 1990s was the creation of the Open Method of Coordination (OMC). As is widely documented in the literature, this "method", in its various manifestations, is mainly a matter of discourse (Barbier, 1998, 2005 and 2012; Buchs, 2007; Kroger, 2008). The OMC approach to policy-making became essential in the so-called Lisbon Strategy. From the early stages of the European Employment Strategy (EES) and the Employment Chapter of the Amsterdam Treaty to the present economic crisis, distinct periods of discourse can be identified (Barbier, 2010). Indeed, an examination of EU political discourse - whether "communicative" or "co-ordinative", to use Schmidt's vocabulary (2006) - is particularly important not so much for its own sake, but because it provides insight into EU politics in general.

The aim of this article is specific and limited. Essentially on the basis of a comparison of selected official documents issued by the European Commission and Council1 that deal with "social policy" before and after the eruption of the 2008 crisis, it aims to identify the changes and enduring features of the EU social policy discourse and to explain such changes and continuities by tentatively relating them to their potential determinants. The notion of "social policy" or "policies",2 as understood from a traditional national perspective, has invariably seemed odd when applied to the EU, where such concepts are rather elastic. Since the Amsterdam Treaty, this term has encompassed "employment policy", which is in itself quite vague if regarded from the standpoint of cross-national research (Barbier, 1998). For the purposes of this article, social policy is limited to employment and labour market policies, unemployment insurance, social assistance, and all social services except for those relating to health and pensions.

The remainder of the article is organized into three sections. The first presents a theory of European discourse in relation to law and policy funding. The second section identifies essential elements of official discourse as manifested before and after the crisis. Here, to simplify, it is assumed the corpus of social policy discourse can be divided into three periods: one associated with the "Lisbon Strategy", another with the reforms that followed (2005-09) and the third with "Europe 2020". This section goes on to explain how these changes can be interpreted during a period when a new "governance system" was introduced and then, from 2010 on, continuously altered by financial and macroeconomic governance (Pochet, 2010). …

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