Comparative European Politics

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 92–111 | Cite as

What “Brussels” means by structural reforms: empty signifier or constructive ambiguity?

  • Amandine CrespyEmail author
  • Pierre Vanheuverzwijn
Original Article


This paper deals with the ideas underpinning the EU’s socio-economic governance by focusing on the notion of structural reforms in the framework of the European Semester. It asks which policy ideas are constitutive of the notion of structural reforms in the EU and whether said meaning has changed over time to tackle slow growth and rising inequalities. Our demonstration is mainly grounded on a content analysis of all European Semester documents since 2011 (including Annual Growth Surveys, Alert Mechanism Reports, Euro Area Recommendations, and Country-Specific Recommendations) and completed by a short series of interviews with European and national officials involved in the European Semester. We find that, despite floating meaning, the notion of structural reforms exhibits a persisting core consisting of typically neoliberal policy recipes such as the liberalisation of products and services markets, the deregulation of labour markets, and public administration reform. At the same time, structural reforms have covered eclectic—if not contradictory—policy ideas, thus accompanying a discursive turn towards more fiscal flexibility and (social) investment. Rather than a constructive dynamic towards a renewed agenda, such ambiguity, we argue, reflects a fundamental, asymmetric ongoing battle of ideas within the EU.


European Union Structural reforms Ambiguity Economic governance European Semester Neoliberalism 


  1. Armstrong, K. 2013. The New Governance of EU Fiscal Discipline. New-York: The Jean Monnet Center of the NYU School of Law, Working Paper Series No. 29.Google Scholar
  2. Babb, S. 2012. The Washington Consensus as Transnational Policy Paradigm: Its Origins, Trajectory and Likely Successor. Review of International Political Economy 20(2): 268–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ban, C. 2015. Austerity Versus Stimulus? Understanding Fiscal Policy Change at the International Monetary Fund Since the Great Recession. Governance 28(2): 167–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Ban, C. 2016. Ruling Ideas. How Global Capitalism Goes Local. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bekker, S. 2015. European Socioeconomic Governance in Action: Coordinating Social Policies in the Third European Semester. OSE Paper Series No. 19.Google Scholar
  6. Bekker, S., and I. Palinkas. 2012. The Impact of the Financial Crisis on EU Economic Governance: A Struggle Between Hard and Soft Law and Expansion of the EU Competences? Tilburg Law Review 17(2): 360–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Best, J. 2008. Ambiguity, Uncertainty, and Risk: Rethinking Indeterminacy. International Political Sociology 2: 355–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Best, J. 2012. Ambiguity and Uncertainty in International Organizations: A History of Debating IMF Conditionality. International Studies Quarterly 56: 674–688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Braun, B. 2016. Infrastructural Power: The ECB’s Push for Institutional Change in the European Securitisation Market. In Paper Presented at the Workshop Ideas, Interests, Institutions and Change: The EMU from Delors to Schäuble, 28 April 2016, University of Salzburg.Google Scholar
  11. Broome, A. 2015. Back to Basics: The Great Recession and the Narrowing of IMF Policy Advice. Governance 28(2): 147–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Buchanan, I. 2016. Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Carstensen, M. 2011a. Ideas are Not as Stable as Political Scientists Want Them to Be: A Theory of Incremental Ideational Change. Political Studies 59(3): 596–615.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carstensen, M. 2011b. Paradigm Man vs. the Bricoleur: Bricolage as an Alternative Vision of Agency in Ideational Change. European Political Science Review 3(1): 147–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Coman, R., and F. Ponjaert. 2016. From One Semester to the Next: Specificities and Adjustments in Shaping the Underlying Legitimacy Mechanisms. In Paper Presented at the 23rd Council of Euroepan Studies, 14 April 2016, Philadelphia.Google Scholar
  16. Copeland, P. forthcoming. The European Semester and EU Social Policy. Journal of Common Market Studies.Google Scholar
  17. Crespy, A., and G. Menz (eds.). 2015. Social Policy and the Euro Crisis. Quo Vadis Social Europe?. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  18. Crouch, C. 2011. The Strange Non-death of Neo-Liberalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  19. Dehousse, R. 2015. The New Supranationalism. In Paper Presented at the ECPR General Conference, 26 August 2015, Montreal.Google Scholar
  20. de la Porte, C., and E. Heins. 2015. A New Era of European Integration? Governance of Labour Market and Social Policy Since the Sovereign Debt Crisis. Comparative European Politics 13(1): 8–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Edwards, S. (1989) On the Sequencing of Structural Reforms. Cambridge, MA: The National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper No. 3138.Google Scholar
  22. European Council. 2013. Conclusions of the European Council 14/15 March 2013.Google Scholar
  23. European Council. 2016. Conclusions of the European Council 17/18 March 2016.Google Scholar
  24. Fitoussi, J.-P., and F. Saraceno. 2013. European Economic Governance: The Berlin–Washington Consensus. Cambridge Journal of Economics 37(3): 479–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hay, C. 2004. The normalizing role of rationalist assumptions in the institutional embedding of neoliberalism. Economy and Society 33(4): 500–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hemerijck, A. 2014. The Euro-Crisis: Welfare State Conundrum. In The Eurozone Crisis and the Transformation of EU Governance. Internal and External Implications, ed. M.J. Rodrigues and E. Xiarchogiannopoulou, 137–155. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. Helgadóttir, O. 2016. The Bocconi Boys Go to Brussels: Italian Economic Ideas, Professional Networks and European Austerity. Journal of European Public Policy 23(3): 392–409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hoffmann, S. 1995. The European Sisyphus: Essays on Europe, 1964–94. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  29. IMF. 1980. World Economic Outlook. Washington: IMF.Google Scholar
  30. IMF. 1993. World Economic Outlook. Washington: IMF.Google Scholar
  31. IMF. 2016. Staff note for the G20: A guiding framework for structural reforms. Washington: IMF.Google Scholar
  32. Jabko, N. 2006. Playing the Market. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Jegen, M., and F. Mérand. 2014. Constructive Ambiguity: Comparing the EU’s Energy and Defence Policies. West European Politics 37(1): 182–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Juncker, J-C., Tusk, D., Dijsselbloem, J., Draghi, M., and M. Schulz. 2015. Completing Europe's Economic and Monetary Union. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  35. Kjaer, P., and O.K. Pedersen. 2001. Translating Liberalization. Neoliberalism in the Danish negotiated economy. In The Rise of Neoliberalism and Institutional Analysis, ed. J.L. Campbell and O.K. Pedersen, 219–248. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Laclau, E. 1996. Emancipation(s). London: Verso.Google Scholar
  37. Laclau, E. 2006. Ideology and Post-Marxism. Journal of Political Ideologies 11(2): 103–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lebaron, F. 2014. Réformes structurelles. Avoir/Agir 4(30): 5–8.Google Scholar
  39. Lora, E. 2012. Structural Reforms in Latin America: What Has Been Reformed and How to Measure it. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank. Working Paper No. 346.Google Scholar
  40. Lütz, S., and M. Kranke. 2014. The European rescue of the Washington Consensus? EU and IMF lending to Central and Eastern European Countries. Review of International Political Economy 21(2): 310–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mahoney, J., and K. Thelen. 2010. A Theory of Gradual Institutional Change. Explaining Institutional Change, 1–33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Mahoney, J., and D. Rueschemeyer. 2003. Comparative Historical Analysis: Achievements and Agendas. In Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, ed. J. Mahoney and D. Rueschemeyer, 3–40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. OECD. 1980. Economic Outlook. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  44. OECD. 1988. Economic Outlook. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  45. Offe, K. 2009. Governance: An “Empty Signifier”? Constellations 16(4): 550–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. OECD. 2011. Directory of Bodies of the OECD. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  47. OECD. 2016. Economic Policy Reforms: Going for Growth. Interim Report. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  48. Schmidt, V.A. 2016. The ‘New’ EU Governance: ‘New’ Intergovernmentalism Versus ‘New’ Supranationalism Plus ‘New’ Parliamentarism. In Paper Presented at the ENLIGHTEN WP1 Workshop, 18 December 2015, Université Libre de Bruxelles.Google Scholar
  49. Schmidt, V.A., and M. Thatcher (eds.). 2013. Resilient Liberalism in Europe’s Political Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Vanheuverzwijn, P. 2014. Promoting the Agenda for a Social Economic and Monetary Union: Attention, Credibility, and Coalition-Building. Bruges Political Research Papers No. 37.Google Scholar
  51. Zeitlin, J., and B. Vanhercke. 2014. Socializing the European Semester? Economic Governance and Social Policy Coordination in Europe 2020. Stockholm: Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, Working Papers No. 7.Google Scholar
  52. Zeitlin, J., and B. Vanhercke. 2017. Socializing the European Semester: EU Social and Economic Policy Co-ordination in Crisis and Beyond. Journal of European Public Policy. Scholar
  53. Zittoun, P. 2013. La fabrique politique des politiques publiques. Paris: Presses de Science Po.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université libre de Bruxelles, CEVIPOL CP 124BrusselsBelgium
  2. 2.Université libre de Bruxelles, CEVIPOL CP 172BrusselsBelgium

Personalised recommendations