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Centre for European Research

The challenges of researching the European social dimension


Paul Copeland

My research currently focuses on developments within EU social and employment policy (known as the European social dimension), particularly those policies coming out of Brussels which aim to steer the domestic policies of the member states.

While at first this may appear to be a relatively straight-forward field of research, its complexity stems from divisions between the Member States that have limited integration in the field and resulted in a piecemeal system of governance. For example, the EU can legislate and thereby harmonise policy in the field of health and safety at work. This includes the Working Time Directive which limits the average number of hours per week an employee can work over a reference period of four months.  However, in employment/unemployment policy, education and training, as well as poverty and social exclusion, the EU can only steer and guide the policies of the Member States. Further complicating the picture is that should a Member State find itself in financial difficulty, as was the case during the Eurozone Crisis, the EU has several hard sticks it can use to bring government spending under control. Cuts to government spending can result in cuts to welfare spending, thereby providing the EU with indirect influence in this policy area.

The governance of EU macro-economic policy is predominantly achieved by the European Semester – an annual governance cycle in which the Member States report progress in achieving EU targets in areas such as government spending, national deficits and debt, and micro-economic policy. The European Semester also includes targets for employment and social policy, such as the need for Member States to increase employment rates to 75 per cent of the eligible working population by 2020 or to reduce the number people living in poverty and social exclusion by 20 million by 2020.  In areas of perceived policy weakness, the European Council and the European Commission can issue a Member State with Country Specific Recommendations. Any Member State receiving a Country Specific Recommendation is required to make progress in the next cycle of the European Semester.

As a researcher, two questions stem from these current governance arrangements. The first is the policy independence or inter-dependence of the European social dimension in the European Semester vis-à-vis the EU’s macro-economic policy. Here I’m referring to the ability of EU employment and social policy to be governed independently of the EU’s neoliberal macro-economic policies. In short, does the EU produce employment and social policy that serves to further the functioning of the market or does it also produce policies that protect people from the market? Having one’s life-chances determined by the pure functioning of the market is fundamentally different to living under conditions in which certain things are guaranteed independently of the market. The latter includes policies such as minimum income guarantees, while the former includes low levels of unemployment benefit that would push an individual into work regardless of the quality of that employment. For me, employment and social policy that serves only to further the market and commodifies human beings is immoral. That Europe’s greatest experiment may be sliding down this road is one of the main reasons I became interested in this area of research.

The second research question focuses on the strategies social actors use to form EU employment and social policy within the European Semester. For example, to achieve more policy outputs, do social actors compromise and propose policy outcomes that correspond with the EU’s market logic? Or are they able to pursue a more market-correcting approach? This second question lends itself to analysing the power structures of EU governance by providing an understanding as to who has power and who is driving the process of European integration.

I’m currently under contract with Routledge to write a monograph that focuses on these two questions. ‘The European social dimension in a post-2010 EU: Politics and Power’ will be out in 2019. I have also just published, with Professor Mary Daly from Oxford, on this topic in the Journal of Common Market Studies. ‘EU Social Policy and the European Semester’ is available here. Broadly speaking, my research finds that the EU predominantly constructs employment and social policy that serves to further market integration. In my opinion, such developments may explain why its popularity levels amongst EU citizens have declined overtime.



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