Written by Achilles Tsigris, edited by Annica Auer
The (post-)COVID19 European political environment has seen intense bureaucratic activism from the European Commission which expanded its presence in the political and fiscal environment of the Member States through Next Generation EU, the European Green Deal, and similar policies aimed at improving the capacity of actors to deliver on the challenge of a sustainable and resilient Europe (Wolff and Ladi, 2020; Pfeiffer and Varga, 2021; Kassim, 2022).
Two specific policy streams located in the epicentre of European Policy as a prerequisite of many goals are Education and Employment. Given the lack of supranational competences in the two areas, policies relating to these sectors are often pursued on the basis of the Open Method of Coordination, in which member states proceed voluntarily while the European Commission only sets the direction through communications and directives that the Member States (MS) agree to. The Parliament and the European Court of Justice lack any involvement, thus allowing for MS to proceed at their own pace (Dehousse, 2003). Thus, the process of harmonisation of national policies in a common European standard (Europeanisation) on these sectors is limited and subject to the ability of the Commission to mediate skilfully and harmoniously between the MS.
However, as a lot of the policies pursued by the European Commission are multifaceted and cross-sectional, there is intense competition between different Directorate Generals (DGs) inside the European Commission which all aim to increase their budgets and power. In the fields of Education and Employment, this effectively translates to a schism between two DGs, DG EAC (responsible for education) and DG EMPL (responsible for employment), whose competition has been a rising and unresolved issue since the 1997 European Employment Strategy. As the current friction deeply impacts on the Commission’s ability to agree on a common position, mending the schism is of crucial importance for the successful promotion of further integration in the sector of education reforms.
Understanding the antagonism
While DG EMPL is responsible for fostering employment and labour mobility within the EU, DG EAC is responsible for promoting education, training, youth, and culture. The initial problem arises with the association between education and employability: more concretely, an important part of Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs) includes up-skilling and reskilling programmes, as well as other educative training programmes (Caliendo and Schmidl, 2016). Additionally, consultations with professors and network creation through school and academic circles is proven to be a significant factor in facilitating the transition from education to work – thus minimising youth NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) (ELSTAT, 2016).
The result is that, while both DGs have distinct fields of actions that are not contested, there is friction in the policy area where the lines between education and employability are blurred. This “grey area” includes topics like Lifelong Learning, Vocational Education and Training (VET), and Green and Digital Skills. Moreover, the recent Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) which provides funding to Member States to boost their post-Covid-19 recovery has significantly expanded the Commission’s role (Wolff and Ladi, 2020; Pfeiffer and Varga, 2021; Kassim, 2022), which has only increased the friction.
The first major decrease of trust between the two DGs happened in 1997 with the European Employment Strategy (EES). The EES paid attention to the issue of lifelong learning and highlighted it as a distinct area of cooperation between the EU and MS, but it was led by DG EMPL (Watt, 2004). Thus, decisions affecting areas related to educational policy and with implications on the nexus of national education policies were decided by employment cabinets without allowing for education ministers to intervene. The education- and skills-related parts of the EES were then also implemented at a national level through National Action Plans primarily by the ministries of labour (Pochet, 2002).
The dynamic established with the EES was challenged at the beginning of the following decade, when DG EAC propelled the Lisbon Strategy under its agenda as a major tool to shape a new European architecture in the field of education. DG EAC decisively spearheaded the negotiations and political actions by building on the European Council’s conclusions and utilised different structures like working groups, goals and indicators, and a framework of benchmarks to incentivise MS to report to it directly – without the involvement of DG EMPL. Hence, DG EAC utilised the impetus created by the Lisbon Strategy and the OCM to pursue long-term goals in its agenda, effectively acting as a policy entrepreneur to secure its relevance in the sector of education and get an advantage over DG EMPL (Gornitzka, 2018). However, this innovation did little to amend the competition between DG EAC and DG EMPL over the question of what the limits between employment and education policy are: policy issues concerning skills and VET were addressed by DG EAC, while DG EMPL was silently observing from the background.
More recently, former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker moved the agenda of Adult Education from DG EAC to DG EMPL in 2014. As a consequence, the units dealing with Skills and Qualifications, Vocational Training and Adult Educational policies were yet again moved from DG EAC to DG EMPL (European Commission, 2014). While DG EAC’s priorities included a balanced approach on adult education that went beyond adult education as a means for employment, DG EMPL saw it almost exclusively as an ALMP for employability (Rasmussen, 2014).
The repeated transfer of the agenda on adult education and VET led to an open bureaucratic split within the Commission (Tuparevska et al., 2020). Moreover, the inclusion of goals originally coming from the Lisbon Strategy into the European Semester Process which aims to align budgetary provisions of Member States on an EU-wide level, while an achievement, also meant that other DGs were now contributing to different aspects of education policy work, despite not necessarily conceiving of the agenda in the same manner. For example, DG EMPL and DG ECFIN’s crucial role in the European Semester – representing the education policy area – means that they have higher control of the budget and can thus streamline the policy objectives in desired directions (Zeitlin and Vanhercke, 2018). Moreover, the annual Education and Training Monitor is under the jurisdiction of DG EMPL, despite covering goals that are associated with DG EAC’s field of action.
Recently, the Commission has gained a lot of momentum with a variety of ambitious programmes:
- the European Green Deal brings green and digital skills to the table, which are important for employability in all age groups, and includes DG REGIO in the competition between DG EAC and DG EMPL;
- the European Skills Agenda focuses on educative programmes for the up-skilling and reskilling of workers as well as the enhancement of entrepreneurial skills;
- the European Education Area includes a target goal of providing work-learning through VET, and emphasises lifelong learning;
- Next Generation EU and the RRF, which overlap with a lot of the goals of the above policies, skyrocket the budget for the achievement of the goals and provide a framework of scrutiny, accountability, and conditionality, thus strengthening the role of the Commission.
Naturally, this has reinstated the antagonism between the two DGs: in the European Education Area, for example, the Communication was written by DG EAC and then edited and adjusted by DG EMPL (Alexiadou and Rambla, 2022). In their main policy areas, the de facto consensus that has been reached between the two DGs and their agencies is rather unorthodox: there exists a horizontal sectorial separation as opposed to the traditional vertical one. In practice, this means that the two DGs are involved in the same policy area, but address different parts of society: DG EMPL addresses mostly adults through agencies like CEDEFOP and the European Training Foundation, while DG EAC interacts mostly with youth through Erasmus(+) and the SALTO (Support, Advanced Learning and Training Opportunities for Youth) Program.
Moreover, DG EAC is mostly interested in interacting with public authorities, while DG EMPL is interested in cooperation with the private sector. The horizontal separation results in intensified overlapping of responsibilities and expertise, thus creating competition for budget on the basis that both DGs have the expertise to fulfil the tasks – and factors like the sometimes blurry limits between “youth” and “adults”, as well as the emerging popularity of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), only worsen the already historically antagonistic relationship.
Welding the schism
Any realistic and feasible proposal for limiting the competition between the two DGs should start from the premise that they are at the epicentre of policy evolutions and play a crucial role in delivering many of the Commission’s ambitious plans. Moreover, the existence of competition encourages better performance; the goal is thus not to completely eliminate it but to ensure that it does not overshadow the healthy functioning and cooperation of the two DGs. Additionally, it is also assumed that the horizontal separation on the sectors of education and employment is the result of the high interconnectedness of the two policy areas, and arose as a need for specialising in a specific area and differentiating from each other. This ultimately means that any attempt to bridge the DGs will have to include this horizontal separation, as separating between education and employment would be inefficient. With all of this in mind, some steps that could be taken to minimise friction between DG EMPL and DG EAC in policy projects include:
1) Promoting the idea that skills and education can work in synergy and are not competing frameworks: As highlighted by interviewees in Alexiadou and Rambla (2022), it is important that education fragmentation is avoided through the promotion of a holistic approach that includes a whole-life approach to education; otherwise, the Council–Commission dialogue is separated into two parallel bilateral communication channels.
On a policy level, this would require further linking the policy agendas of the European Skills Agenda and the European Education Area in such a way that the two frameworks become interdependent instead of competing. Indeed, as of now, while it is acknowledged that the two frameworks are aimed at achieving similar goals (Green and Digital Transition, Economic Recovery, Increased Innovation, Lifelong Learning), there is little evidence of cooperation on achieving these goals together.
2) Involving more stakeholders: From the very beginning, the idea of bureaucratic competition through rational maximisation of self-benefit, whilst currently a reality, is not exactly compatible with fundamental values of pluralism and does not fit with the democratic values of the European Union. The DGs’ role is to function in such a way as to to provide the necessary support for the realisation of the Commission’s goals. These goals must ultimately serve democracy and the citizens, and they can be better understood if expert groups on policy agendas from the civil society are established to judge the relevance of the DGs’ actions.
Moreover, a key problem for the unregulated competition is the on-field expertise that DG EAC and DG EMPL bring, which allows them to bargain for more powers and compete for budget by advocating that they – and they alone – have the expertise to solve a problem (Page, 2010). Including more stakeholders could help improve monitoring mechanisms, while cooperation with local executives and academic experts can help bring expertise that will limit their authority as “policy experts”.
3) Establishing clear lines of responsibility, transparency, and accountability: The Commission should opt for the creation of an informal expert group with the purpose of establishing clear boundaries between the two DGs. Additionally, the results of this expert group should be public and ought to be further advanced through think tanks and policy actors. This is important, since it will give public actors the necessary knowledge to forward a request to the responsible DG and avoid creating confusion. Public transparency could be ameliorated through the introduction of a respective dedicated section on the websites of the two DGs bearing the name “DG EAC – DG EMPL Cooperation” , where citizens and public actors would have the ability to get detailed information on the projects which are operated in common between the two DGs. This will also help crystallise the cooperation structure and will promote the holistic approach mentioned above.
4) Creation of a bureaucratic culture of shared responsibility: Coming from a wide variety of scholars highlighting the lifelong learning interaction of actors inside international bureaucracies that ultimately re-organizes the basis of rational interest (Wilkins and Ouchi, 1983; Claver et al., 1999; Morand, 1995), a mid-to-long-term solution includes the creation of a “need to share” approach in information acquired inside the DGs, as contrasted with a “need to protect” doctrine. Moreover, the two DGs must be involved in complex problem-solving tasks together, to enhance mutual trust and create a bureaucratic “way of doing things” that involves active involvement by both DGs. This can be achieved by establishing ad hoc working groups including members from both DGs.
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