The European Semester is a cycle of primarily economic and fiscal policy coordination within the EU. However, it has recently begun to focus on social policy too. The recent increase in focus on social policies (which in 2019 included recommendations on the use of EU funds through the inclusion of an Annex D), is what has boosted our interest in the process.
The EU does not have an exclusive competence in most areas of social policy, such as employment, education, health, social protection, independent living etc. This means that decisions in these areas are still taken by individual countries or regions. It can make it hard for EDF to have an influence. However, there are two key ways the EU can indirectly influence what EU countries do in these areas. The first is by strategically using EU funds, such as Social Funds or Regional Development Funds, to invest in improving these areas in certain Member States. The other is by using EU mechanisms such as the European Semester to give advice and recommendations to the Member States, and to put pressure on them to act when there are areas in which they are failing.
In 2019 the results were promising. Disability was addressed in the Country Specific Recommendations (the final document delivering policy advice to the Member States) of 18 countries. This was the case for Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. These focused mainly on things such as increasing employment rates for persons with disabilities, social protection and adequate income.
Overview of how the European Semester works
During the European Semester the Member States align their policies with the objectives and rules agreed at the EU level. There are several key stages to the process:
- Beginning of the next cycle: The cycle starts with the Annual Growth Survey. This is the Commission’s main tool for setting out the economic and social priorities for the EU for the following year.
- Policy guidance at the EU level: In March the Commission publishes Country Reports for Member States. These review the situation in each country including in-depth reviews of macroeconomic imbalances and outlining social policy issues.
- Country-specific objectives, policies and plans: In April the Member States submit their policy plans, including a medium-term budgetary strategy and national reform programmes outlining reform plans.
- Country Specific Recommendations: In May the European Commission evaluates national policy plans and presents draft Country Specific Recommendations, a document for each country giving concrete recommendations on steps they should take to address any issues raised in the Country Reports. In July, the final Country Specific Recommendations are sent and the Member States are invited to implement them.
- Implementation in the Member States: From July until the end of the year, sometimes called ‘the national semester’, the Member States take into account the recommendations when drawing up national budgets for the following year.