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Annette Bongardt and Francisco Torres

The Lisbon (2000–2010) and its successor, the Europe 2020 strategy (2011–2020), denote EU-wide exercises in economic policy coordination for economic and institutional modernization. They set an ample reform agenda with common targets to transform a host of common challenges facing the EU and its members (as varied as globalization, the paradigm shift to a knowledge economy, demographic aging, or climate change) into economic opportunities and quality growth. The economic and political economy arguments for EU-level coordination rested on positive spillovers from trade and peer pressure, respectively. The Europe 2020 strategy, a revised Lisbon rather than a new strategy, set a renewed vision of a European social market economy that also plays an important role in the global context (the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development). Built on the Lisbon strategy’s governance framework, Europe 2020 inherited a problem-laden legacy with respect to governance and ownership of reforms and in addition faced the impact of large negative transnational spillovers, which put in sharp focus that there was an as-yet-unaccounted-for euro-area dimension to the reform agendas. The sovereign debt crisis (2010–2014) added urgency to dealing with the EU’s structural weaknesses and economic governance building. The European Semester was set up as the chief instrument to help overcome compliance and implementation problems, inserted within broadened economic policy coordination, of which structural reforms under the Europe 2020 strategy constitute one of three blocks. The OMC method affords member states the possibility of finding their own consensual path toward agreed economic reform targets within the strategy’s adequate, 10-year timeframe. The central idea continues to be the promotion of reforms tailored to member states’ heterogeneous situations and preferences and that so are also politically sustainable. Without being framed and perceived in terms of desirable reforms in line with socioeconomic objectives and preferences, reforms carry potential for a political backlash. The Europe 2020 strategy also captures the fundamental and long-term issues for economic development and competitiveness, notably institution building, and outlines a forward-looking model of society with social and environmental dimensions. The European Commission came to base its assessment of the implementation of structural reforms on the broader objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy and also included the respect for the European social pillar in the European Semester. Nonetheless, Europe 2020 results have been mixed. The OMC does not feature sanctions for non-compliance. The sovereign crisis context added compliance-enhancing mechanisms that were absent before (market and peer pressure, conditionality in countries subject to adjustment programs) although those came essentially to a halt when financial market pressure subsided, and ECB actions had the side effect of relieving pressure. Efforts undertaken to improve implementation include a structural reform support program to make country-specific recommendations more effective. Yet, close to the end of its term the Europe 2020 strategy continues to be held back by member states taking insufficient ownership of reforms and not prioritizing the relevant ones from an EU point of view, a lack of visibility and ultimately, governance (the unanimity requirement).


Whether higher education (HE) can be defined as a European Union (EU) policy has been matter of debate. Formally, education is still a domestic prerogative, and in principle, the EU can only support and supplement national governments’ initiatives in the sector. Yet, this official division of tasks has been challenged in many ways over the last decades. First, the history of European integration shows that the European community took an early interest in educational matters. The Treaty of Rome established a community competency on vocational training. Subsequently, the European Commission framed HE and vocational training as two entangled policies. Second, the EU institutions, the member states, and noninstitutional actors have coordinated in innovative ways, through soft governance processes promoted by the Bologna Process and the EU Lisbon—and later Europe 2020—strategy, to impose a European HE governance based on standards and comparison. Third, the study of HE requires going beyond an EU-centric perspective, with international organizations such as the OECD and the Council of Europe cooperating closely with the European Commission. HE has been increasingly shaped by global trends, such as the increased competition between universities. The mechanisms of European HE policy change have elicited academic debates. Three main explanations have been put forward: the power of instruments and standards, the impact of the Commission’s funding schemes, and the influence of interconnected experts, stakeholders and networks. Domestic translations of European recommendations are highly diverse and reveal a gap between formal adaptations and local practices. Twenty years after the Bologna declaration, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) presents a mixed picture. On the one hand, increased mobility and the growing interconnectedness of academic schemes facilitate the launch of ambitious projects such as the “European universities.” On the other hand, concerns are periodically raised about the growing bureaucratization of the process and the widening gap between the small world of the Brussels stakeholders and everyday academic practices in EHEA participant countries. Paradoxically, smaller and non-EU countries have been more actively involved in advancing the EHEA than large, older EU member states.