Lost in Innovation? Critical Junctures, Policy Change and the European Pillar of Social Rights
Panel: "Emerging Perspectives on Policy Change”
After the outbreak of the economic and sovereign debt crises, macroeconomic and fiscal policies at the European Union level were reformed to introduce stricter enforcement and sanctioning mechanisms of policy coordination, while the social policy area continued to rely on “soft” governance instruments. With the appointment of the Juncker Commission in 2014, the need to address the structural imbalance between the economic and the social dimensions of the EU and to foster “upward social convergence” among Member States, especially within the euro area, came under discussion again and was later concretised in the proposal to establish a European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR or the Pillar). The initiative was characterised by a particularly long and broad consultation process that involved, besides the standard social dialogue procedure, an online public consultation and meetings with civil society actors both at EU and national level. The final outcome was an interinstitutional proclamation that took place in November 2017, through which the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of the EU committed to ensure and foster the social rights and principles enunciated in the document. By adopting a historical institutional perspective, in our paper we argue that the years preceding the proclamation of the Pillar represented a phase of critical juncture for the European Commission, as a result of a favourable combination of structural and agentic factors, and we investigate to what extent the Pillar has marked a change in the way the EU social policy process unfolds and the related modes of governance. In particular, we aim to assess the hypothesis that, with the EPSR initiative, the Commission (under the guidance of Juncker) pursued heightened policy inclusiveness and effectiveness to foster its output legitimacy and, at the same time, to adopt a more protective, rights-based approach to social policy (in contrast to the growth-driven, employment-centred approach of previous initiatives). The main focus of the paper will be placed on the process of public consultations to unveil the role played by institutional and non-institutional actors on the formulation phase and the extent to which their demands were reflected into the final version of the document, paying special attention to civil society actors. To answer to our research questions we will rely on an innovative triangulation method that includes: firstly, an analytical comparison between the preliminary outline of the document and its final version; secondly, an assessment of stakeholders’ preference attainment through the analysis of the position papers submitted during the consultations; thirdly, semi-structured interviews with representatives of each category of policy actor that participated in the process. Our results will show that, despite the phase of critical juncture, instead of introducing substantial innovation in EU social policy-making, the Commission reiterated previously established modes of governance (that closely resemble the Open Method of Coordination launched in 1997) that did not permanently alter the way in which the policy process is devised, but indeed contributed to strengthen the inclusiveness and effectiveness dimensions through an enhanced involvement of civil society.