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Labour Politics and the EU's New Economic Governance Regime

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - European Unions (Labour Politics and the EU's New Economic Governance Regime)

Reporting period: 2020-10-01 to 2022-03-31

This Consolidator Grant project assesses the impact of the EU's New Economic Governance regime (NEG) on employment relations and the provision of healthcare, water, and transport services, as well as the feedback effects on NEG caused by countervailing collective action of labour movements.
Trade unions play a major role in democratic interest intermediation. This role, however, is threatened by the much more vertical nature of NEG interventions since 2009. This project aims not only to assess the shifts in EU governance caused by NEG and its effects on employment relations across countries (Germany, Italy, Ireland, Romania) and public service areas (healthcare, water and transport services), but also to create new methodological approaches that are able to account for the interplay between EU economic governance, labour politics and European democracy.
Until recently, European labour politics has mainly been shaped by horizontal market integration through the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. Since the crisis in 2008, the latter has been complemented by ‘vertical integration’ (Erne 2018) effected through the direct surveillance of member states. The resulting NEG opens contradictory possibilities for labour movements. On the one hand, the reliance of the NEG on vertical surveillance makes decisions taken in its name more tangible, offering concrete targets for contentious transnational collective action. On the other hand, the NEG mimics the governance structures of multinational firms, by using key performance indicators that put countries in competition with one another (Erne 2015). This constitutes a deterrent to transnational collective action. The NEG’s interventionist and competitive strains also pose the threat of nationalist counter-movements, thus making this research on (trans-)national collective action ever more vital for the future of EU integration and democracy.
The project has the following objectives:
1. To understand the interrelation between the EU’s new ‘vertical’ and existing ‘horizontal’ economic governance and shifts in labour politics triggered by the EU’s NEG;
2. To open up novel analytical approaches that are able to capture both national and transnational social processes at work;
3. To analyse the responses of established unions and new social movements to NEG in different areas of labour politics, economic sectors and governance levels, and their feedback effects on NEG;
4. To develop a new scientific paradigm capable of accounting for the interplay between EU economic governance, labour politics, and EU democracy.
We began our project with a team building workshop with all research group members, in which we discussed our work programme and research methodology. After this workshop, the PI conceptualised the difference between vertical and horizontal governance in an internal Reflective Memo and 2 (IREC & ISA) conference papers (objective 1), whilst the senior researcher and the PI further developed the analytical framework for new economic governance (NEG) interventions (ERC working paper no 3) (objective 2).
With this framework, the research team was able to map the EU’s NEG prescriptions in relation to a) industrial relations (namely collective bargaining, labour market protection, wage policy), and b) the provision of public healthcare, water, and public transport services for Germany, Ireland, Italy and Romania (2009-2019). In addition to the EU’s new economic governance interventions, we also reviewed the ‘old’ economic governance interventions (OEG) in our field. Corresponding to the analysis of the NEG, the review of the OEG focused on a) the services of general economic interest (SGEI), b) healthcare policies, c) water policies, and d) public transport policies. Whilst all analysis of NEG and OEG documents has been conducted through a sectorial lens, we have been maintaining an awareness of broader developments at both the European and the national level. Our pilot study conference paper (Szabó, Golden & Erne 2019), for example, makes good use of our distinction between horizontal and vertical integration for assessing the unequal success of the ‘Right2Water’ and ‘Fair Transport’ ECI’s (objective 1 & 3).
With the analysis of NEG and OEG in mind, the research team started interviewing policymakers, trade unionists, social activists and employer representatives at various locations in Europe (objective 1 & 3) and presented their first findings at conferences and seminars organised by academics and practitioners alike. Our research and interviews attracted attention from trade unions, social movements, and employers, leading to several invitations to observe events and provide talks.
In parallel with conference presentations and participant observations, the team worked on publications. Two articles in the British Journal of Industrial Relations (which is 1 of only 3 employment relations journals worldwide ranked as ABS4 journal by the Chartered Association of Business Schools) present first empirical findings (Béthoux, Erne & Golden 2018; Jordan, Maccarrone & Erne 2020) (objective 1). Three book chapters with prestigious publishers (Cambridge University Press, Routledge, Kluwer) outline our novel analytical approach (Erne 2019, 2019a, 2019b) (objective 2). Another chapter in the leading Oxford University Press textbook on ‘Comparative Politics’ reviews the state of the art in the wider field of interest politics and emphasises the need to go beyond the methodological nationalism in the field based on our first ERC research findings (Erne 2020).
In 2019, we organised several public events in order to scrutinise our findings by world-leading social scientists, such as the UCD Spring Seminar Series in Dublin and a 3-day workshop dedicated to our project at the European University Institute in Florence
Firstly, the PI’s article in Transfer: The European Review of Labour and Research (Erne 2018) and his book chapter with Cambridge University Press (Erne 2019) outline our ERC research programme and novel methodology. These early publications affirm the importance of the project for our field and resulted in invitations for the PI a) to give keynote lectures at the 2018 IREC conference (the most prestigious annual industrial relation conference in Europe) and the triennial 2019 European Congress of ILERA (the world's leading scholarly association in our field), and b) to become a co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of the ILR Review on ‘Transnational employment relations in Europe’. The ILR Review is an interdisciplinary journal of Cornell University and one of the two top US journals in our field.
Secondly, we present first empirical findings in a co-authored article in the British Journal of Industrial Relations (Jordan, Maccarrone & Erne 2020), which is 1 of only 3 employment relations journals worldwide ranked as ABS4 journal by the Chartered Association of Business Schools. This article makes both major methodological and analytical contributions. Methodologically, the authors show how to best analyse EU’s NEG prescriptions - following the working paper by Stan & Erne (2019) - by taking into account a) different levels of constraints of NEG prescriptions and b) their semantic context. This approach is only possible, however, given our profound knowledge of both the EU regime and German, Irish, Italian, and Romanian labour politics. Analytically, the BJIR article reveals the effects of NEG on countervailing collective action. In conjunction with the yet unpublished parallel studies on NEG interventions in the water (Szabó), transport (Golden) and healthcare (Stan & Erne) sectors, the authors highlight that transnational countervailing collective action to NEG prescriptions occurs more likely in response to the commodification of public services than to the commodification of wages, job protection legislation and collective bargaining institutions.
Thirdly, we organised several public seminars in order to scrutinise our findings by world-leading social scientists, such as the UCD Spring Seminar Series 2019 with M Seeleib-Kaiser (Tübingen), N Jabko (John Hopkins Univ.), C Joerges (Hertie School Berlin), A Kaasch (Bielefeld) in Dublin and a 3-day-long EUI workshop dedicated to our project with S Bartolini, D Bohle, A Héritier, B Laffan, P C Schmitter (all EUI) G Meardi (SNS), and D Sacchetto (Padova) in October 2019 in Florence.
Regarding future results, we expect that – as per our research proposal – our qualitative novel multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork will deliver on our objectives as planned. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, however, we had to postpone this fieldwork to autumn 2020. Furthermore, we have added an additional element to the project this spring, namely the creation of a database of all transnational collective actions since 1993, involving transnational, German, Irish, Italian, and Romanian actors. Finally, the Covid-19 emergency has made our first ERC project findings on the (mostly negative) effects of the 'commodifying' EU New Economic Governance interventions in employment relations and the provision of public services in Germany, Ireland, Italy and Romania during the last decade even more vital, namely in healthcare. Our research is hence not only of academic interest but also directly relevant for the current EU policy debates in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
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