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Is the EU Bound to Be Neoliberal?

The EU has been famously qualified by thinkers of the global justice movement as the Trojan Horse of global neoliberalism on the European continent. This question is not only a matter of radical politics. In academia as well, scholars of political economy and European studies have formulated different answers as to whether EU governance has a neoliberal added value or whether the policies adopted at European level merely reflect the trends which can be observed at the regional, national and global levels. While political economists and institutionalist scholars have provided different assessments, the sociological approach adopted in this book aims to bring politics back in.

Within the literature about the transformation of European capitalism, five strings can roughly be distinguished which have brought various insights into the causes, nature and degree of neoliberalization in the EU. Neo-Gramscian scholars, among whom many originate from the ‘Amsterdam school’ (Overbeek 2004), contend that European integration is historically and by nature a hegemonic project centred on mar- ketization. This can be explained by the restructuration of capital at the global level and the shift in class power relations (Holman et al. 2004; Bieler 2015). They argue that the success of the hegemonic neoliberal European project is not due to a process where the neoliberal paradigm has been unilaterally and unambiguously imposed upon national societies. On the contrary, it has built on the capacity of neoliberal forces to absorb and neutralize competing paradigms, that is, mainly the project of a supranational social market economy promoted by social democracy (van Apeldoorn 2002; Bieler 2005; van Apeldoorn et al. 2009; Horn 2012).

Scholars in international political economy have been interested in the rise of neoliberalism in Europe as the ideational dimension of EU integration. They have considered the EU as a regional entity embedded in a global environment dominated by the rise of neoliberal ideas and discourses (Crouch 2011; Blyth 2013). They have shown how the economic imperative linked to globalization and Europeanization has been constructed in political discourses and instrumentally used by national decision makers in order to legitimize the adoption of neoliberal reforms (Hay and Rosamond 2002). Upstream of the political process, experts and epistemic communities have also worked for the justification and the diffusion of reforms responding to the levels of competitiveness called for in global competition (Radaelli 1998). At the same time, several authors have stressed that regional integration in Europe exerted a much higher pressure on welfare States than globalization due to the liberal orthodoxy enforced in the framework of the European Monetary Union and the use of constraining legal instruments by the European (de)regulatory State (Hay et al. 1999; Hay and Wincott 2012). This perspective has been supported by historical studies of the ideological roots of European integration (Denord 2008; Denord and Schwartz 2009).

The institutional dimension of EU integration lies at the core of the research conducted by the ‘German school’, which focuses mainly on institutionalist arguments. As discussed in detail in the introductory chapter, Scharpf demonstrates that, due to political disagreements and institutional discrepancies among the Member States, on the one hand, and to the weight of non-majoritarian institutions (Commission, European Central Bank [ECB], ECJ and regulatory agencies) which do not depend on the electoral process, on the other, the EU should be seen as inclined by nature towards market liberalization and deregulation (Scharpf 1999). This structural trend was accentuated by the role of the ECJ, which has often favoured the logic of free movement and competition over national social regulation, especially with regard to labour market integration and the free movement of workers (Hopner and Schafer 2010). Several authors have therefore claimed it was this structural asymmetry that precluded the EU from realizing a (supranational) social market economy (Scharpf 2010). Hence the necessity of preventing the EU from encroaching on the national regulatory capacity through a stricter delimitation between national and European institutions, the Commission and the ECJ in particular (Joerges 2009a).

In contrast, other scholars who have been interested in both ideational and institutional aspects have put the neoliberal nature of the EU into perspective. They have often stressed the persistence of different varieties of capitalism in Europe (Hall and Soskice 2001; Schmidt 2002; Hall and Thelen 2009). Beside Anglo-Saxon liberal capitalism, corporat- ist and Statist economic traditions have adapted yet survived. Insofar, Europeanization did not result in uniformization (Schmidt 2002). It has also been argued that, in a Polanyian perspective, the EU contributes not only to an offensive movement of the markets towards society but also to a countermovement aimed at re-embedding the functioning of markets in social regulation, for example, through non-discrimination policies (Caporaso and Tarrow 2009). Furthermore, the deepening of EU integration, for example, with the creation of a common currency, displays a process of centralization which can be likened to the construction of a political centre rather than to the triumph of anti-State neoliberalism (Jabko 2006, 2010).

Finally, over the past decade a critical sociological approach to EU integration has developed. It has focused on agents and the study of Europe ‘from below’. This approach has been particularly prominent in the French-speaking academic realm. The emphasis has been placed on the diffusion of the market paradigm, or referentiel; through practices shaping public policy in various sectors such as agriculture (Jobert 1994; Fouilleux 2003), research (Bruno 2008), monetary policy (Fontan 2013), social policy (Gayon 2013) or labour market reforms (Caune 2014). The sociological approach consists of explaining policy outcomes through everyday agency within the EU institutions, the use of expertise, framing and reframing by EU and national actors, or the diffusion of ideas across networks, including international organizations like the Organization for European Cooperation and Development (OECD). More recently, this approach has been used to examine to what extent neoliberal policy recipes were discussed and negotiated among agents at the national and EU levels involved in the making of EU policies (Crespy and Ravinet 2014). Going back to an institutionalist argument, it is argued that the complexity of the various procedures and institutional settings for EU policy-making constrains the power of neoliberal ideas, as many actors with contrasted views and interests become involved throughout the various stages of the policy cycle from agenda setting to implementation.

These developments have generated research investigating how and why a new European synthesis between ordoliberalism and financial neoliberalism appears more strengthened than questioned in the current European ‘great recession’ (Crouch 2011; Schmidt and Thatcher 2013a; Braun 2015). This has made the project of a more ‘social Europe’ more elusive than ever (Crespy and Menz 2015b). Compared to previous debates, there seems to be a convergence to acknowledge that, while austerity is an old policy concept (Blyth 2013), the European response to the crisis in the Eurozone and beyond makes its enforcement upon European societies more stringent and more centralized at the same time.

The deep transformations in the provision of welfare services are certainly one area where the combined effects of neoliberalism and European integration on European societies are most tangible. The following chapters aim to explain how we got there by going back to the key political debates which sealed the fate of policy making in the realm of welfare services at the level of the EU. As it has been explained in greater detail in the introductory chapter, institutional factors a la Scharpf certainly play a role in the continuous supremacy of negative integration over positive integration. However, such factors do not have a deterministic effect on political outcomes. The sociological approach here focuses on contentious politics and looks into how ideational factors as well as the interactive unfolding of contentious politics resulted in the relative containment of resistance against welfare services marketization. By taking multi-level politics seriously, this book seeks to avoid a simplistic account of a top-down impact of the EU decisions. National politics, governments’ decisions but also global policy agendas and debates are all intertwined in today’s European politics.

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