Assessing the EU's 'Lisbon Strategy:' Failures & Successes

By Jiri Krcek
2013, Vol. 5 No. 09 | pg. 2/2 |

Causal Failures of the Lisbon Strategy

Weak governance structures

The analysis of the consequential problems presented above suggests that one of the main causes for failure was the weak and ineffective governance structure represented by the OMC. The rationale for selecting the ‘soft’ mode of governance over a centralized supranational method came out of recognition that the potentially affected policy areas are too sensitive for exposure to EU scrutiny (Scharpf 2002: 650-651). The aim of the OMC was then to find a middle ground between policy diversity and policy convergence by establishing a cognitive arena as a means for spreading the best practice, while still allowing Member States to maintain their own structural arrangements. Hence, there existed no institutional leadership to monitor progress and stimulate engagement (Copeland 2012: 235). Rather, the implementation of Strategy’s goals essentially depended on voluntarism and political support. At the same time, there was no effective system of control mechanism to issue rulings or sanctions in order to enforce compliance (Borrás and Radaelli 2010: 32). The peer pressure system was not living up to the purpose of control mechanism simply because Member States were not willing to name and shame their peers in fear to make themselves enemies. Logically, the incentive to engage in peer pressure is low as the overall agenda encompasses multiple policy areas. In other words, naming and shaming by a Member State in a policy area where it has progressed rapidly contains a danger of being named and shamed by other Member States in a policy area where it has progressed slowly (Collignon et al. 2005: 9). It thus seems almost impudent for a Member State to assume the disciplinary role if it itself exhibits inadequacies across multiple policy areas. Given the inability of the Member States to pool sovereignty and allow supranational institutions to oversee the implementation, it is perhaps of little surprise that achieving the benchmarks has been problematic (Copeland 2012: 235).

Shifting priorities

The second major problem in the pursuit of the Lisbon Strategy was the unstable nature of objectives set. The priorities of the Strategy fluctuated over time, most notably with the inclusion of environmental dimension at the Gothenburg European Council summit in 2001 and later with the re-launch of the whole programme in 2005 under the brand new label ‘Growth and Jobs’ (Bulmer 2012: 36). As Copeland (2012: 233) points out, the re-launch, in particular, meant that the Strategy changed its aim from one in which economic growth was to be balanced with social cohesion to one in which economic growth was to create social cohesion. This radical shift from centre-left to centre-right ideology became the source of much ambiguity, undermining the consistency of the Strategy’s long-term holistic perspective. Essentially, the disruption in the course did not suit a broader set of stakeholders such as social NGOs and trade unions. For instance, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) detached itself from the Strategy’s direction, as it disagreed with “essential social and environmental objectives being sacrificed to short-term economic demands” (ETUC 2012). The disconnection of ETUC also reflected Strategy’s weakening ability to maintain support for momentum behind its direction at both governmental and societal levels (Copeland 2012: 233). This experience thus stands in stark contrast with the well-crafted coalition-building that came to be a key factor for the completion of the Single European Market project in 1992 (Copeland 2012: 234).

Policy Learning: A Dubious Success?

In spite of the widely held view that the Lisbon Strategy is a story of failure, a considerable bulk of literature tends to acknowledge some positive aspects of the programme. Perhaps the most prominent one relates to OMC’s capacity of promoting an environment for mutual learning and deliberative problem-solving. In simple terms, the argument goes that by means of new opportunity structures (peer reviews, supranational committees, national action plans), the OMC pushed Member States to exchange, compare, and eventually rethink their domestic policy paradigms in light of their relative performance (Lopéz-Santana 2006: 492; Zeitlin 2005a: 22). For Zeitlin (2005b: 470), the cross-national learning has been particularly evident through heuristic and capacity-building effects, especially in the areas of European Employment Strategy (EES). In heuristic terms, both OMC processes have enhanced mutual awareness of national policies contributing towards an increasing interest in learning from another. For example, when drafting the labour market reform in 2002, not only did the German government draw on other Member States’ national action plans, but also engaged in bilateral exchanges with like-minded countries such as Denmark, Italy and the UK on particular policy issues (Büchs and Friedrich 2005: 254). In terms of capacity-building, the EES process have contributed towards the development of a common set of European indicators as well as a creation of new data sources. (Zeitlin 2005b: 471).

However, most of the knowledge has been confined to the EU-level political or technical committees. For Copeland (2012: 230), the process of policy learning is essentially ‘Brussels talking to Brussels’, without compliance of the Member States. This point is echoed by Radaelli (2008: 248), who claims that the cognitive process manifests itself vividly at the top, yet there is limited evidence of learning from the top and almost no evidence of learning from the bottom. Furthermore, the effects of learning have varied across different policy areas. For instance, the already mentioned employment policy developed a strong cognitive framework, whereby Member States demonstrated a higher levels of engagement in peer reviewing than usual (see Heidenreich and Zeitlin 2009). By contrast, learning within the healthcare policy area has been rather scant, producing embryonic progress in terms of monitoring and target setting (Copeland 2012: 230). Given these frailties, the success of the OMC in promoting policy learning is dubious at best and remains open to question.


The aim of this essay was to analyse the Lisbon Strategy in terms of its main failures and successes. In order to paint as full picture as possible, the essay evaluated two distinct categories of failures. First, it demonstrated how the Strategy failed in all key areas to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” Second, the essay identified the weak mode of governance and the unstable nature of goals as two main causal factors for the Strategy’s inability to carry out its overarching aim. Finally, it was argued that a partial success of the Strategy lies in its capacity to encourage policy learning through partial Europeanization of policy problems. However, despite this rather minor positive development, the Lisbon Strategy is a more story of failure than of success.

In 2010, the EU launched a successive project of the Lisbon Strategy under the banner ‘Europe 2020’. Although it represents a more streamlined reform strategy, it does not mark a radical departure from its predecessor in terms of governance architecture. The key attributes of the OMC remain untouched: the Council is still in charge of monitoring progress within the individual policy areas, while other EU institutions and non-governmental actors stay very much on the margins. Furthermore, there is no intention for the publishing of league tables that would enhance the role of peer review. Finally, with a mid-term review, it is possible that the political priorities of the EU’s long-term commitment will shift once again (Copeland 2012: 237). Therefore, the crucial task for the new European reform strategy is to ensure that it will not represent a mere name change from its forerunner, but that there are tangible changes visible.


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