EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

European Employment Strategy

The European Employment Strategy (EES) is a soft law mechanism designed to coordinate the employment policies of the EU Member States. While the objectives, priorities and targets are agreed at EU level, the national governments are fully responsible for formulating and implementing the necessary policies.

Historical background

The European Council of 9–10 December 1994 in Essen confirmed the EU’s commitment to the promotion of employment and agreed on five key objectives:

  • development of resources through vocational training
  • promotion of productive investment through moderate wage policies
  • improvement of the efficiency of labour market institutions
  • identification of new sources of jobs through local initiatives
  • promotion of access to the world of work for specific target groups (young people, long-term unemployed, women)

The coordination of national employment policies aimed at achieving these objectives became known as the ‘Essen Strategy’. The EES was institutionalised by the Treaty of Amsterdam – which came into force in 1999 – a step enshrined via the Luxembourg process . In 2000, the mid-term review of the Luxembourg process concluded that a common, integrated framework for structural change was helping to promote a mutually supportive ‘synergy effect’ between different actors at European and national levels. The European Commission has invested a large amount of both time and resources in the development of the EES, including a major impact evaluation in 2002.

The implementation of the EES through the open method of coordination (OMC) has various strengths: it is an iterative process, carried out over several years, with a set of guidelines including targets and deadlines, as well as a review and evaluation procedure. It is underpinned by five key factors: subsidiarity, convergence, mutual learning, an integrated approach and management by objectives.

In 2000, both the Lisbon Presidency Conclusions and the Feira Council called on the social partners to play a greater role in the implementation of the EES. For example, an EU-level social dialogue between the European social partners with mandates from affiliated social partners could result in guidelines that draw on the experience of national employment pacts or follow on from proposals by the Commission. Affiliated social partners at Member State level could also produce National Action Plans (now National Reform Programmes) to implement the guidelines embodied in EU framework agreements.

Since the Treaty of Amsterdam came into force, the EES process has involved: annual sets of employment guidelines, National Reform Programmes (NRPs) issued by the Member States on an annual basis and annual joint employment reports and recommendations. The original employment guidelines shifted from the four pillars of adaptability, entrepreneurship, equal opportunities and employability to three main objectives in 2003: full employment, improving quality and productivity at work and strengthening social cohesion and inclusion. However, due to increased regional disparities as a result of the enlargement of the EU, the last item has since become ‘strengthening social and territorial cohesion’. The NRPs were based on a new set of 24 integrated guidelines for growth and jobs policy 2005–2008, which aimed to show how the employment guidelines could be put into practice at a national level. The NRPs were required to set out the policy responses to the key macroeconomic, microeconomic and employment policy priorities and the involvement of the social partners was seen as essential to achieving the objectives.

Recent EES developments

The growth of the EU to 25 Member States in 2004 and 27 in 2007 proved to be one of the major challenges for the EES. Joint Action Plans, which helped prepare candidate countries for full membership of the ESS, proved to be a useful instrument in the smooth integration of the new Member States. Candidate countries also had the opportunity to adjust their institutions and policies to conform with the EES, thus allowing the full implementation of the Employment Title of the Treaty from accession.

As an integral part of the Lisbon Strategy, the EES has also proven to be an important policy instrument. The relaunching of the Lisbon Strategy saw the European Council approve changes to EU guidelines that would affect the EES – in particular concerning the integration of macroeconomic, microeconomic and employment policies for growth and jobs – producing one set of guidelines to cover all three areas. A further step undertaken to reinvigorate the EES involved the unveiling of the 2007–2013 cohesion policy in 2006. The main feature of this policy was the strong encouragement of Member States to submit National Strategic Reference Frameworks that would promote growth and better jobs. These new developments addressed previous concerns that the EES was being undermined by its uncertain relation to macroeconomic policy and the scarcity of financial support for innovative developments.

In 2005, the Commission launched a new programme of Mutual Learning centred on the exchange of good practice and the sharing of experiences with the EES. In parallel, the Commission adopted a Community Lisbon Programme with around 100 EU-level measures in July 2005.

In 2007, the original Employment Incentive Measures (EIM) – which were part of the employment title of the Treaty of Amsterdam – were reorganised and, together with other initiatives, regrouped under the community programme for employment and social solidarity (PROGRESS) . The programme was based on four specific community action programmes, which financed the implementation of the Social Policy Agenda , as well as policies in relation to employment and working conditions.

The 2007 proposal for the new employment guidelines (2008–2010) was influenced by discussions on employability and flexicurity, emphasising three priority areas:

  • attracting and retaining more people in employment, increasing labour supply and modernising social protection systems
  • improving adaptability of workers and enterprises
  • increasing investment in human capital through better education and skills

In 2010, given the impact of the economic crisis, the Commission proposed the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth . Through Europe 2020, the Commission commits to a sustainable recovery; it outlines a set of goals, each of which is linked to an initiative to be developed. Among them, the initiative ‘ An agenda for new qualifications and jobs ’ (2011) marks the need to modernise the labour market in order to achieve two potential objectives: a reduction of unemployment and an increase in labour productivity. The subsequent European Union Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) (2013) aimed for an even higher level of quality and sustainable employment.

See also: employment rate; European social model; National Action Plans; National Reform Programmes; open method of coordination; peer review subsidiarity

Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.

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