Research puzzle and research question

Quantitative appraisals of whether the Semester promotes reforms have mainly looked at the degree to which Member States have implemented CSRs. Conclusions are predominantly negative in that not only Member States address CSRs in a limited way, but that there is also a substantial decrease in implementation rates over time (Banerji et al., 2015; Darvas and Leandro, 2015; Zuleeg, 2015; Alcidi and Gros, 2017; Efstathiou and Wolff, 2018). M1P- and especially SGP-based CSRs, which are legally enforceable, are implemented more often; however, their implementation rate is found to be in decline. When taking a multi-annual perspective on the implementation of CSRs, as opposed to yearly assessments, the picture is also only slightly more favourable. When observed by policy areas, implementation of employment policies fully fits the grey picture. These studies have, on a purely speculative basis, assigned the possible reasons for poor implementation to political costliness of reforms, reform fatigue, inadequacy of the governance framework and

CSRs, the fading of market pressure amidst economic recovery, ineffective enforcement of SGP/MIP rules and lack of national ownership. Criticisms that such quantitative assessments can neither determine the direction and strength of influence nor the reasons behind limited fit between CSRs and national reforms are well placed. Little is known empirically about the specific factors which stand in way to Semester’s influence and qualitative inquiries are best suited to open this black box. However, such findings are nonetheless puzzling in that they contradict continuous efforts to increase the Semester’s reform-generating potential.

It seems that the recent intensification of EC’s involvement in economic, social and employment policy within the Semester framework risks amplifying a “soft-law dilemma” which Tholoniat (2010: 111) aptly describes as a situation in which:

On the one hand, there is a wish to establish transparent and predictable European frameworks conducive to structural reforms at national level: this is essential to ensure delivery over time, as well as to mobilise stakeholders. On the other hand, there is a tendency to add to the EU agenda with new initiatives: policy activism is necessary to keep the political momentum of the EU agenda, secure ownership and interest of political actors, and avoid the bureaucratisation of OMC processes.

This dilemma proves difficult to settle. Policy activism reflected in the proliferation of employment strategies, activities and initiatives within the Semester risks “blurring the sense of direction of EU action”, whereas Semester’s procedural complexity, governance interactions and technical overload compounds policy coordination. Thus, employment coordination risks falling into a “bureaucratisation trap” by creating a complicated and demanding system of routinized interactions delegated to national civil servants. As some have noted previously, the mere scope of activities that have to be covered both in EMCO and by national administrations (reporting obligations, mutual learning, monitoring, recommendations, etc.) and the frequency of interactions contribute to the bureaucratization and professionalization of co-ordination (Heidenreich and Bischoff, 2008: 502). The Semester clearly poses an extra ideational (policy activism) and procedural (bureaucratisation trap) challenge to national governments. Several governments from CEE, although appreciating the added value of the Semester and Europe 2020, have already expressed concerns about their complexity. They describe it as “administratively demanding”,5 lambaste the cramped schedules6 which disable real dialogue and reflection on policies, criticize overlaps and over-supply of different reporting obligations,7 and stress that some of the Europe 2020 initiatives “have not proved to be a catalyst of strategically oriented and coherent initiatives with clear priorities”.8 With the new Semester framework in mind, it is therefore worthwhile to empirically investigate the intricacies of EU employment coordination to explain whether the Semester actually

Employment policy in the European Semester 11 creates added value, what obstacles there are to its effectiveness and how national government have adapted to new circumstances. To that end, I formulate the following research questions.

First, the most basic research question asks to what extent, if at all, can domestic policy change be attributed to Semester activities and recommendations. The study takes an interest in describing both the scale of Semester influence, that is, how many policy items were influenced and magnitude (depth) of Semester penetration into national employment policy, understood as the degree or level of change triggered by the Semester.

RQ 1.1: To what extent has the European Semester influenced changes in employment policy in CEE between 2011 and 2018?

Second, in instances where EU impact can be detected, this contribution is interested in explaining the specific pathways or routes through which the Semester influences domestic policy change. This is done by empirically testing the applicability of three theorized mechanisms of influence. Alternatively, the qualitative analysis will account for sources of influence other than the Semester.

RQ 1.2: How or through which mechanisms has the European Semester influenced those changes?

Finally, it is important to locate the specific factors which have either made influence possible and contributed to the Semester’s effect or have inhibited effectiveness. This allows for a more informed debate about the circumstances in which the Semester is capable of exerting influence.

RQ 1.3: Under which conditions has the Semester (not) been able to exert influence?

Overview of chapters

The remainder of this chapter introduces the Semester to the reader in a more nuanced way by contextualizing the evolution of EU employment coordination and explaining the key trends, processes and actors in the Semester cycle. Chapter 2 outlines in detail the theoretical framework and methodology used in this book. The theoretical chapter is followed by four contextualized country chapters on Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia. The individual country chapters are brought together in Chapter 7 which offers a synthesis of the empirical findings and generates cross-country conclusions. The final chapter concludes with several empirical upshots and a short contribution to the ongoing debate on the reform of the Semester, particularly concerning queries on how to make it more conducive to learning.

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