Key empirical takeaways
The empirical findings point to several conclusions about the influence of the Semester on employment policy in CEE. The Semester displayed little direct impact on employment policies in Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia in the period between 2011 and 2018. With the introduction of the Semester, one strand of the literature saw greater integration of economic and social/employment coordination and hardening of the latter. The other strand argued there was an intensification of multilateral surveillance which translates into greater potential for learning and policy transfer. This book could not find unequivocal support for either claim in CEE. It is not evident that more legalization and enforceability of soft law (Scharpf, 2002) leads to more compliance. Compliance was mostly ostensible as it was not grounded in domestic preferences. On the contrary, the increase in mutual learning opportunities did not translate into more policy learning. Neither mechanism, with the stellar exemption of the LTU issue in Slovakia, helped address structural problems on the labour market, but contributed to further patchworkization, creative compliance and fragmentation of employment policy in CEE. Continued external pressure proved counter-productive when faced with explicit resistance from domestic Eurosceptic elites, risking accusations of illegitimate intrusion and scapegoating. Also, while the Semester cycle was decisive in setting funding priorities, the Commission is struggling to meaningfully engage in sustained policy advice throughout the policy cycle. For that to happen, the Commission lacks sufficient policy expertise in its own ranks to be able to follow through with assisting Member States in structural reforms. Mutual learning largely fell victim to the economic crisis; however, several structural impediments at the EU (quality of deliberation) and national level (politico-administrative connections, domestic policy objectives) distort the quality of multilateral surveillance.
By and large, Semester’s influence was felt domestically only indirectly, that is, only when influential domestic actors could suit the framework to their preexisting policy agendas. As long as governments and institutional actors could cherry-pick elements of recommendations and guidelines that served them, the Semester was considered a welcome addition to their domestic yearnings. The Semester was often misused as domestic actors tend to adjust the meaning and mis/re-interpret EU suggestions. The empirical cases showed that availability of (financial) rewards and programmatic/policy fit significantly condition the ability to use the Semester strategically. On the contrary, the existence of Eurosceptic audiences or governments’ negative attitude towards EU’s involvement in a policy issue significantly reduces the possibility of using the reference to the Semester to justify policy change. Alternatively, the Croatian examples of the pension reform and VET reform during Plenkovic’s mandate shows that governments can use the Semester surveillance process for new forms of legitimizing use. Instead of justifying change by EU requirements or by blaming shift to Brussels, governments use the Semester as an extra source of legitimation to demonstrate success when the Commission endorses the preferred policy direction.
The Semester definitely further formalized, deepened and complemented the OMC process. The Semester undeniably succeeded in raising the political profile and visibility of EU employment coordination, promoting evidencebased policymaking, maintaining the relevance of certain policy issues on the governments’ policy agenda and coupling the European and national level better than before through multilateral and bilateral cooperation. To remind the reader, previous research had argued that the impact of the EES was “negligible” in the region (Meardi, 2017: 144) and that “soft acquis has played a much more limited structuring role [in CEE], reflecting more obviously the weight of the dominant domestic actors, in using, interpreting and filtering EU rules and recommendations” (Delteil and Kirov, 2017: 5). From that perspective, employment OMC had not prevented a race to the bottom and CEE countries were said to instrumentalize soft law to advance their domestic social deregulation agendas. Whilst arguing that such a deregulatory agenda has remained a common characteristic of CEE Member States would be empirically unfounded, claims that domestic political/policy priorities in the region take precedence over care for policy coordination and EU convergence are largely supported by the findings in this book. The Semester has a hard time penetrating into the domestic employment systems in CEE with policy recommendations and objectives which transcend domestic agendas. Despite the attempted hardening of employment coordination and the intensification of multilateral surveillance, governments continue to value the most the ability to instrumentalize only favourable elements of the Semester framework. When external incentives are not matched by domestic support, governments still find ways on how to resist change or to create the impression of compliance. The direct impact of the Semester on employment policy change stays inconsiderable. These findings resonate with Bekker’s (2017) conclusions. On the one hand, as the Semester matured and inter-institutional balance was established, a more visible shift in the Commission’s approach from a disciplinary, top-down logic towards adopting more flexibility took place. The Commission became less intransigent, particularly in regard to hot-potato policy items, and demonstrated readiness to adapt their policy focus to political realities and home-grown policy preferences. On the other hand, Member States increasingly felt free to consume subsidiarity in employment policy. They enjoyed latitude to adopt alternative policy solutions, to adapt EU recommendations as needed, and in case of controversial topics to directly oppose CSRs without the need to sugar-coat their position.
Evidence on the procedural effects of the Semester largely match previous findings on the effects of the EES. Table 8.1 shows that some effects emanate from the legal obligation to participate in the Semester cycle, so that national authorities had to create national systems of Semester coordination. Their set-up is contingent on the national context and lends more (Croatia, Slovakia) or less (Hungary, Slovenia) discretion to labour ministries in defining employment-related paragraphs of the NRPs. The Semester did not induce new ways of involving social partners, civil society and parliamentary actors in setting strategic priorities in the NRPs. The intensity of consultations with social partners varies from moderate (Slovenia) to very weak (Hungary). Still, in most cases, their involvement is reduced to a window-dressing exercise and they lack substantive influence in the domestic coordination of the Semester. Finally, the need to keep track of employment trends and to monitor the effectiveness of policies inspired improvements in statistical capacities across the board, and in some instances (Croatia, Slovenia) contributed to better and more evidence-based policymaking.
A common criticism of the EES was that it favoured a neoliberal paradigm which put social and employment policy in the mission of fostering competitiveness and economic growth (Meardi, 2017: 133). In the Semester context, fear of a growing power asymmetry between DG ECFIN and DG EMPL in favour of the former, which was said to be reflected in the neoliberal underpinning of structural reform requirements and dominance of fiscal consolidation and austerity objectives, only exacerbated the criticism. The empirical analysis showed that in the early Semester years, the Commission’s internal struggle to find a balance between promoting retrenchment (DG ECFIN) and investment (DG EMPL) had deteriorated the quality of interactions with Member States from CEE in EMCO and bilaterally. The vigorousness by which DG ECFIN advocated fiscal consolidation was hugely adversarial. However, as EMCO, SPC and other advocates of social investment managed to induce “some degree of ideational change in the EU’s socioeconomic governance”, employment recommendations in the Semester gradually reoriented towards more social investment (Crespy and Vanheuverzwijn, 2019: 94) and market correction (Copeland and Daly, 2018). Empirical findings from CEE confirm the rebalancing of policy objectives in favour of the social investment paradigm. In substantive terms, employment CSRs did not systematically prefer retrenchment (cost containment, fiscal sustainability of pension systems, link between productivity and wages, liberalization of labour regulations, reduction of labour costs, workfare) over investment (improving employability, childcare facilities, active ageing, adult learning, skills upgrading and quality of training, adequate unemployment benefits and social protection). This finding is confirmed by Copeland (2020: 115-116) who finds that the majority of decommodifying CSR in the period between 2011 and 2018 were predominantly issued to post-communist states whose welfare states exhibit serious deficiencies. In total, the Semester agenda had not disproportionately promoted growth, competitiveness, efficiency and productivity in CEE.