• Having your Cake and Eating It

  • Lutz Brangsch | 25 May 09 | Posted under: European Union
  • The EU’s Open Method of Coordination (OMC) seems to exist in a world of its own, outside of the real social welfare debate. Proven ineffectiveness in its core area – combating poverty – is combined with an apparently naïve faith in the power of consensus and the need to set a good example. 

    One might see it as a straightforward case of manipulation designed to divert attention from the dismal reality of social welfare in the EU. This is no doubt partly true, but it would be a fatal misperception and underestimation of the project to reduce the OMC to this aspect. The fact is that the OMC signals a new, complex way of shaping policy. It is a new mode of combining inclusion and exclusion, of establishing a new political culture underpinning a broad social alliance for the EU area. This makes it a procedure that, regardless of the details of what it actually does, is a challenge for left-wing politics.
    „It was conceived as a flexible governance method… It is based firmly on the principle of subsidiarity and has the stated aim of "helping Member States to progressively develop their own policies". It involves the following features:
    l fixing guidelines for the Union …
    l establishing, where appropriate, quantitative and qualitative indicators and benchmarks against the best in the world …
    l translating these European guidelines into national and regional policies by setting specific targets …
    l periodic monitoring, evaluation and peer review organised as mutual learning processes.
    These features have to be understood as a framework for the application of the Open Method of Coordination in various areas. It remains to be defined in a more detailed way in the context of each application which features and working methods will be applied and how the work will be organised.“1
    Over the past few years the vision and thrust of EU social policy, and hence also the factors determining the shape of the OMC, have been continually developed.
    A Communication from the EU Commission on the Social Agenda of 20052 states:
    „The task now is to improve the implementation of the measures foreseen by the Social Agenda, on the basis of principles that have proved their worth. These principles should make it possible to:
    l pursue an integrated European approach guaranteeing positive interplay between economic, social and employment policies;
    l promote quality – of employment, social policy and industrial relations –, which, in return, should make it possible to improve human and social capital;
    l modernise systems of social protection by adapting them to the current requirements of our societies, on the basis of solidarity and by strengthening their role as a productive factor;
    l take account of the ‘cost of the lack of social policy’”
    The Commission is concerned, this document continues, with “strengthening citizens’ confidence” and creating better conditions for “employment (under the prosperity objective) and, linked to that, equal opportunities and inclusion (under the solidarity objective)”. Thus, increasing importance is being given to the struggle for acceptance.
    The Social Agenda of 2 July 2008 marked a further upgrading of the OMC. In the “renewed Social Agenda” itself we read: „Open methods of coordination (OMCs) are key to the EU Social Agenda, having helped Member States to develop a shared vision of social challenges, fostered a willingness to cooperate and learn from each other's practices, created a new dynamism in furthering and implementing reforms, and promoted more knowledge-based policy making, geared towards openness, transparency and participation.“3
    This places the OMC among the instruments of the Social Agenda,4 on a level with community law, the Social Dialogue, the provision of EU funding, measures for the development of partnership, dialogue and communication as well as the orientation of all EU political measures toward the promotion of opportunity, access and solidarity. In assessing the OMC it should be remembered that it treats ends and means equally (at least in a formal sense) as part of a single political strategy and that it was introduced as an instrument for making the interrelationship between ends and means a flexible one. It should also be noted that it was intended not to replace the Social Dialogue, but to extend it.


    The recognition of an active role for social welfare in politics, of the necessity for shaping social relations as a guarantee of economic development, does not necessarily establish social welfare as a premise for policy. A comment by the European Anti-overty Network (EAPN) under scores this aspect and calls for the goals to be attained via the OMC to be made more binding.5 EAPN advocates a “democratically negotiated social progress pact”. This is not only a justified demand, but also one that goes well beyond the approach described in the extended Social Agenda. 
    In the changed understanding of social policy at the EU level outlined above social welfare is not seen as an end in itself, but as an instrument, as an investment, as capital. The renewed Social Agenda is seen as a way of “helping workers to adjust to change.”6 Social policy must keep pace with the changes brought about by globalisation, demographic factors and technological development; it must be flexible and able to react to changes. This is a challenge that has to be faced at all decisionmaking levels.7
    The German sociologist Stephan Lessenich has described this political approach as follows: “The ‘social investment’ is as it were the premium segment of an activating social policy – and among its main clients are … ‘the’ women and children who for various reasons are not (quite yet) gainfully employed and hence not fully paid-up members of the social productive community, but who can potentially attain this status at some future date with public support. In keeping with this new way of thinking about social welfare policy, they should not be left to their own devices, but be put in a position to commit themselves and their (human) capital in a socially productive manner.”8
    Thus the Open Method of Coordination is a reactive instrument to be used for the application of standards set from “outside” (via the Lisbon strategy). This means that there is a strong link between the OMC and the other instruments of the renewed Social Agenda with workfare concepts. The former gives the latter an expanded framework. As the process in itself has no binding character, there is still scope for the continued use of social welfare as a competitive arena, as a place to search for national solutions to contradictions in the area of social welfare. If we were to accept this classification, the OMC would have to be regarded as no more than a conservative instrument.
    The real political innovation, however, is the incorporation of the OMC in the relationship between governance and subsidiarity, which can probably be regarded as a central political premise for the further development of EU social policy. Ideas are being applied to EU social policy that were developed in other fields and other regions in the last two decades. Such tie-ins are mainly to be found in the policy of the World Bank in connection with development projects, in the notions of “welfare economics” (Amartya Sen, U.S.), and in the concepts for the development of “civic commitment”. As a point of reference in this connection we may cite the 2001 White Paper “European Governance”,9 which was reflected in various versions of it at the national level. The problem description it contains deplores the fact that people consider the EU to be incapable of taking action where it is needed, as in combating unemployment. 10 This document names five principles which are also to be found in the OMC: openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence, going on to say that: “The linear model of dispensing policies from above must be replaced by a virtuous circle, based on feedback, networks and involvement from policy creation to implementation at all levels.”11 Priority is given to “improv[ing] the involvement of regional and local actors”.
    The OMC is aimed at achieving this goal in relation to social welfare. But who are the “actors” or, as they are now called, the stakeholders – and what does “involvement” mean in this context? From a sober perspective this approach should be seen as a reaction to the above-mentioned decline in the role of the traditional social partners: the widening of the debate beyond the traditional constellation of employers’ associations/ trade unions in order to achieve the desired social consensus. The use of the term “stakeholder” should not just be regarded as an attempt to keep up with current usage, but as a term that extends the range of those addressed while at the same time aiming at an apparent depoliticisation of the process. Stakeholders as partners, who may not have a legally defined but certainly a legitimate interest in dealing with a given problem, are accepted only in so far as they are diffused throughout society, not in their ability to take political action. Power imbalances are not directly made visible, but just remain intact. Other actors/ stakeholders are the national governments or civil services and those who pay for the social security systems themselves. Supra-state regulation cannot be all-embracing – civil services, social security systems, etc. tend to overshadow the economic interests which an inclusive concept has to take into account.
    The OMC does this at different levels, having been deliberately conceived not as a mere catalogue of aims, but also as a “learning project”. In the OMC the EU has developed a procedure that initiates, perhaps for the first time with this degree of complexity, an international learning process “from above” which can exert a major incorporating effect. It is a new way of producing governance skills, supported by a broad resource basis. Not only the knowledge possessed by academe, applied research institutions and the civil service, but the knowledge of a large part of engaged civil society can be incorporated in decision-making processes. This gives the cant phrase “knowledge is power” an entirely new meaning. A governance skills are generated that is immediately shared and that can exclude system-jeopardising factors through the way it is generated. Although it draws upon democratic traditions and procedures, the OMC is only democratic in a limited sense. Tying the process to the Lisbon Strategy means expropriating society of social knowledge – a form of socialisation forced into the straitjacket of capitalist exploitation. The effectively non-public nature of what ought to be a public process indicates that this contradiction constricts the effectiveness of the OMC.
    The learning takes place in various ways. Particular mention should be made of the various forms of consultation, such as transnational exchange programmes, meetings of those affected by poverty, the PROGRESS Programme (Community Action Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity), and the peer review.
    The peer review12 combines mutual control and pooling of experience. The procedure is also termed the “key element” of the OMC. In it a country presents what it considers to be the experience in the field of social policy that is of interest to decision- akers, specialists and other relevant parties. At present, the circle of independent experts comprise representatives from all 27 EU member states and from three other candidate countries. The network itself is managed by four consulting firms commissioned by the relevant EU General Direction: ÖSB Consulting GmbH (Austria), CEPS/INSTEAD (Luxembourg), The Institute for Employment Studies (United Kingdom), and Applica (Belgium). The tasks, the sequence and the ways of selecting the focal areas are laid down in a guideline.13
    In 2008 peer reviews were carried out in Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and Austria. Experts from six to ten countries took part in the processes. The resultant documents describe the practice followed in the given country in relation to the question under examination and offer an evaluation of how far the approaches, institutions or regulations can be transferred from one country to another. The formulations contained in the documents are often not very conclusive, although this does not seem to be important. From a political point of view the comments of the experts and the “stakeholders” from the countries involved are much more important.
    The dynamic emerging from this modus operandi of incorporation, of creating common viewpoints within the framework of social conditions, and the closely associated creation of a special “closed world of social experts”, with its own language and its own rules, is the really important result. For the further development of this instrument the following are required: better background information, a more stable analytical basis, a comprehensive dissemination of the results, and closer integration of civil servants at local and regional level.14
    „The PROGRESS programme15 offers support for the testing of new tools for mutual learning and exchange of best practices, e.g. projects for temporary pooling and transfer of expertise between member states; training on strategic planning, mainstreaming, coordination, involvement of stakeholders, monitoring and evaluation in the Social OMC process.“16
    The programme “can also help the development of “social experimentation” as a way to test innovative ideas before engaging in large-scale social programmes, for example in the area of minimum income, child benefits, or long-term care; the programme will support the study, the dissemination and evaluation of social experimentation projects.”17
    The combination of peer review and such a novel programme needs to take place in a way that can eliminate the functional weaknesses of the former. Above all it should be designed to expand the basis of strategy development into the public sphere. With the testing of certain social policy arrangements, private providers or social insurance systems, for example, will be tied much more closely to strategic policies and forced to identify with political decisions they themselves have participated in. The narrow framework imposed by the politicians favours the reformulation of highly political questions as organisational and technical ones. The actors in the national welfare states are held in high esteem and have common problem-related interests (often apparently “only” of an organisational or technical nature) in a globalising world, passed on to them by supra-governmental structures, which for their part are forcing through their own interest as enshrined in the Lisbon Strategy. This makes it possible to avoid awkward questions of legitimacy in relation to expertocratic decisions – such as those of the commissions in Germany that proposed crucial restructuring measures in the fields of labour-market and pension policy, although only a small section of those affected were involved (which exposed the real interests at work). It reinforces the emergence of a separate culture with its own view of what a human being is, a process already promoted by the peer review. Thus the Lisbon Strategy has come full circle. The EU could successfully square the circle by adopting a common social policy without an elaborate common legal basis, without giving governments instruments of coercion to use against each other, and with a high degree of legitimacy, at least as regards those professionally involved in social policy.

    Consequences for Left Movements?

    Little attention is paid to the OMC in the literature, especially in leftwing literature. And yet the political actors are in fact taking up a discussion, which at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries foreshadowed the beginnings of a split in the working-class movement. In a polemic against Bernstein during the debate on the basic thrust of Social Democratic policy Rosa Luxemburg put forward the thesis that emancipatory politics was also a matter of “how”, of the way in which political action was taken. And it is a fact that many of the EU’s social policy goals and projects taken by themselves are not wrong. But their quality as social policy is derived from the manner in which they are enforced and how they interact with other policies. Seen against this background, the close linkage in the instruments of the OMC between goal-formulation, knowledge production, pooling of experience, and learning, represents a challenge.
    This new challenge raises the question of how knowledge and strategy are currently produced in the left-wing movements and to what extent the ways in which knowledge is produced include organisational and activating elements. Another question is the extent to which action is taken (or statements made) on an exclusive basis or how much real general accessibility there is. The presentation here of the various aspects of the OMC suggests the following directions for ongoing discussion:
    1. Social welfare  means interrelationships between people who always enter into them as social beings. If one regards left social policy as being aimed at emancipation for the whole society and for each individual, it can only be a process consciously supported by the masses. This in turn opens the way to an alternative social policy as a deliberative (and in this sense democratic) process on a society-wide scale. It must begin by providing society with information, which has to be processed within a deliberative process in a barrier-free social space to produce consequences for social policy. If academics and movement activists want to advance social policy, they must find their specific place in (and not “above”) such a space. In other words, they too must see themselves as part of the problem and accept the cognitive powers of the masses. This is the only way of facilitating learning processes that will contribute to lasting acceptance of a different social policy. In this sense left-wing social science is like any other form of cognition, as in the constitution of empirical knowledge or “folk wisdom”.
    2. Account must be taken of the fact that the subjects of political action, and hence the addressees of social policy, have changed considerably in recent decades. A wealth of political experience has been amassed, the level of education has risen considerably, and concern with social problems today extends to broader strata than in the past. The OMC is oriented to the use of this resource. It uses it by expropriating it. How can this process be reversed by activating social knowledge as a resource for resistance and emancipation? Clearly, the way left movements are organised needs to change.
    3. Actually, the idea of social forums is an adequate and alternative emancipatory response to the question posed by the OMC: networking, pooling of experience, consensus-building in a space that is (partially) free of hierarchy and barriers – all these things address problems similar to those addressed by the OMC. Perhaps the social forums should reprofile themselves as places where an Open Method of Coordination is systematically practised “from below”. Important points of contact would include the experience of poverty conferences, social reporting, and the local Agenda 21. After all, modern left-wing movements began with analyses of the social condition and discussions of such reports; we need only recall Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England of 1844/45 and the references to the British factory reports in Marx’s Capital. In 1867 Marx proposed to the emerging International a great “international work”, a “statistical investigation of the working class of all countries, undertaken by the working class itself”. If they were to be successful, he argued, they would have to know the material they meant to work on.”18 This ought still to be valid today. Social reporting “from below” could be an activating and legitimating project, including many opportunities for forming alliances.
    4. An important demand in the sense of a positive approach and the reversal of the OMC would be for a democratisation of social security or, in Germany’s case, for a revitalisation and renewal of self-governing social insurance. This would not be just a rehash of the representative, democratic approach (which would be its basis), but also introduce participatory, direct-democracy elements. Such a political demand would be valid in one form or other in all EU member states.


    1 COM(2003) 261, p. 10-11
    2 COM(2005) 33 final COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION Social Policy Agenda
    4 Ibid., cf. section 5
    5 A stronger OMC, but not enough to make the difference! EAPN Response and Proposals for Reinforcing the OMC. 16 September 2008 (http://www.eapn.eu/images/docs/eapnreinforcingtheomc2008_en.pdf)
    6 COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL: Solidarity in the face of Change: The European Globalization Adjustment Fund (EGF) 2007 – Review and Prospects, Brussels, 2.7.2008 COM(2008) 421 final, p. 2
    7 Cf. COM(2008) 412 final, p. 3
    8 Stephan Lessenich: Die Neuerfindung des Sozialen. Der Sozialstaat im flexiblen Kapitalismus, Bielefeld 2008, p. 98
    9 COM(2001) 428 fial
    10 COM(2001) 428 final p. 9 
    11 COM(2001) 428 final p. 14
    12 cf. www.peer-review-social-inclusion.net
    13 www.peer-review-socialinclusion.net/peer-reviews/Operational%20Guide%202008_DE.pdf
    14 COM(2008) 418 final,p. 8f.
    15 ec.europa.eu/employment_social/progress/index_de.htm
    16 COM(2008) 418 final, p. 8f.
    17 Ibid., p. 9

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