Recent actions by the European Union in the field of social policy and industrial relations reveal an increased use of alternative approaches to governance that are more accepting of diversity and encourage semi-voluntary forms of coordination. This can be seen in areas where traditional tools like directives are employed, as many recent directives tend to be relatively open and flexible. But the move from top-down, uniform rules to more flexible and participatory approaches can best be seen in areas like the European Employment Strategy (EES) which departs radically from traditional regulatory approaches.
The EU has endorsed the EES and similar new governance arrangements and dubbed them "the open method of coordination". They combine broad participation in policy making, coordination of multiple levels of government, use of information and benchmarking, recognition of the need for diversity, and structured but unsanctioned guidance from the Commission and Council (Mosher, 2000; de la Porte, 2000a, 2000b; de la Porte, Pochet and Room, 2001; Hodson and Maher, 2001). Because this new type of governance does not rely primarily on top-down command and control-type regulation backed by sanctions, its use has been described as a move from "hard law" to "soft law" (Snyder, 1994; Abbott and Snidal, 2000).
The use of the open method of coordination to deal with social policy in general and employment in particular is controversial. Where some see a creative breakthrough that will solve problems heretofore thought to be intractable, others see just one more development that threatens the "European Social Model". For the optimists, the EES is not only a methodological breakthrough for the Union, but also an innovation with superior capacity to solve the many problems Europe faces in the social field (Gerstenberg and Sabel 2000). Others, however, fear that by moving away from efforts to mandate uniform social and employment standards, the Union will contribute to the gradual erosion of the programs and policies that make up the European Social Model (Degryse and Pochet, 2000). For the pessimists, the move to soft law is at best a waste of time, and at worst a smokescreen behind which the welfare state might be dismantled.
This paper examines the EES as an alternative form of governance in the EU. We ask why the EU adopted this novel approach, describe its operation, and make a preliminary assessment of its impact on national policy making, its capacity to promote learning and innovation, and its potential impact on the future of the European Social Model.1
1 It is important to stress the preliminary nature of our study. Research for this paper was completed in September 2001. We had to rely heavily on official documentation then available and the surprisingly sparse secondary literature documenting the impact of EES. A full evaluation will require substantial empirical study at many levels of European government and society.