Hard and Soft Modes of Governance: The Participation of Organised Interests to the European Networks on Pensions
By Philippe Pochet
Director of the Observatoire Social Européen
and David Natali
Senior Researcher at the Observatoire Social Européen
This article is the third in a series of four contributions within the research project ‘The Open Method of Coordination in the field of Pensions and European Integration’ carried out by the Observatoire social européen and financed by the Belgian Federal Public Service Social Security. While the first two articles focused on the recent evolution of pension institutions in the enlarged Union (Natali 2004a) and on the reform politics based on the interaction of governments and social partners (Natali 2004b), this is more related to the European dimension of pensions.
The main goal here is to propose a dynamic analysis of the overall European policy-making process on pensions. While most of the recent academic literature has focused on ‘new modes of governance’, we try to give a broader picture combining the study of both traditional ‘hard’ law and new ‘soft’ methods. This approach is developed in line with a diachronic perspective. The question of pensions, in fact, has been approached at the European level in three phases. The first is linked to creating the internal market. This centres on promoting labour mobility, and on the creation of an integrated financial market. The question of pensions is seen, from this point of view, as a factor concerning effective freedom of movement. From a normative point of view, privatisation is a key issue.
The second wave stems from the adoption of monetary union; here, two strands can be distinguished. First, the limit imposed on public deficits, and the objectives of the Stability and Growth Pact to maintain the balance or even a slight surplus in public finances. Since pensions are the costliest item of social expenditure, the pressure to stabilise or even reduce such costs will be reinforced. Elsewhere, fears have been expressed about the capacity to finance pensions in the medium term, and the risks involved for the sustainability of the European Monetary Union (EMU). Here, sustainability is central.
Finally, since 1999 social protection has become the object of more sustained attention from the European Commission (EC) (CEC 1999a) and from ministers for Social Affairs. Since the Lisbon summit, the open method of co-ordination had been applied first to poverty and social exclusion, then to pensions (Pochet 2002). This approach focuses on social perspectives such as redistribution and the reduction of poverty among old people.
This article will elaborate on how pension policy is currently formulated within the EU, on the policy contexts within which it is located, and on the identity of the main actors concerned with its development. The object here is to analyse policy trajectories being developed within EU institutions. As we are examining an organisation without direct sovereign powers in this area, the main focus must remain on developing an understanding of the different factors shaping policy recommendations— prescriptions that are not necessarily acceptable to member states. In taking a European standpoint, we will approach these questions in three stages.
First of all, we need to reconstruct European debates, pointing out where they are consistent, but also identifying their dynamics and interactions. One of the key issues at European level is to define the nature of the problems linked to pensions. We will approach this question from a global perspective. In effect, there is a strong link between public pensions (their level and coverage) and the space, thus, made available for other systems. In other words, a reduction in public pensions is one condition for opening up wider possibilities for individual and private schemes (Palier and Bonoli 2000).
It is not only this aspect though, which leads us to favour a more integrated approach. In effect, agreement on the part of ministers for Social Affairs to deal with the question of pensions at the European level has removed one of the main obstacles to a European approach. Insofar as European debates were driven by economic and financial players, by the Directorates General (DGs) for the Internal Market and by the Economic and Finance Council (ECOFIN), their impact at national level was de facto relatively limited. Those primarily concerned, the ministers in charge of pensions, could argue at national level that Europe had no jurisdiction in these matters (subsidiarity). National political systems being less fragmented than the European system, European discussions that only tackled one aspect of the multidimensional problem of pensions, had, finally, very little impact on national politics (for a discussion of fragmentation/fusion of European politics, see Wessels 1997).
At this point, we need to understand the different ways in which the EU could intervene in national reforms. This forms the second phase of the analysis. Academic literature on the Europeanisation of national policy is now the dominant theme of European studies (Radaelli 2000). The policy network approach will be particularly useful to describe the fragmented European policy-making on social policies (Peterson and Bomberg 1999, Peterson 2003). Moreover, in order to be more specific about the area of analysis that concerns us, we will draw on the work of Dudek and Omtzigt (2002).
The effects at national level need to be considered. This is the key concern, and it is less a matter of anticipating outcomes than of underlining the absence of direct effects, or simple mechanisms of cause and effect on the public–private divide which lies at the heart of the article. The argument we propose is that the more complex the discussions at European level are, the more weight they carry, and the more options they offer for dealing with the challenges of ageing. This being the case, radical proposals become marginal. However, the incremental impact of Europe on the redefinitions of the division between private and public needs to be reinforced.
For purposes of clarity, we have chosen a chronological, thematic presentation. Section 2 gives a brief summary of the theoertical background of this article. It is provided by the policy network approach. Therefore, we will brefly summarise the different ways the EU intervenes in the pension debate. Section 3 underlines the issues linked to labour mobility, and the creation of an integrated financial space. This section, as well as the following ones, refere to the European debate, the actors playing a role within, and the potential impact on member states. Section 4 shows how this debate has become linked with that of monetary union, and the sustainability of non-prefunded public pensions. Section 5 shows how social issues have moved centre stage in this debate since 2000. This has promoted a new set of interconnections between areas of debate, which had previously tended to remain compartmentalised. Section 6 concludes.
2. THE ANALYSIS OF THE EU ROLE ON PENSIONS THROUGH THE POLICY NETWORK APPROACH
European institutions have faced the pension issue in different phases and in line with different perspectives. The first will to favour the free movement of people, and services, to boost competition between financial institutions, was later on combined with the goal to improve the economic and monetary stability of the European Union, and finally to co-ordinate its social dimension. This ‘step by step’ process has been consistent with the co-existance of different sets of actors, each based on the mutual interaction of players and institutions. To improve the knowledge of such interaction in the policy-formation process, we propose the policy network analysis (PNA).
The image of network was originally defined in Britain in the late 1970s: the aim was to distinguish modern democratic governance from both the classic Weberian state (based on hierarchies) and the pure private markets (see Rhodes 1997, Mayntz 2003). The following strain of the academic literature was widely rooted on the assumption that conteporary governance is the more and more heterarchical, fluid, and involves a plurality of public and non-public players. While formal institutions maintain the responsibility for decisions, choices are shaped through bargaining (alternatively based on cooperation and competition) between different forces.
This approach was, then, adopted for the study of the European integration. It seemed particularly useful given the peculiarity of the EU as a system of governance. The concept of network has been used to describe the highly segmented and dispersed nature of the EU policy-making, where mutliple ‘stakeholders’ try to influence decisions (Rosamond 2000). As proposed by Peterson (2003), a policy network is a cluster of actors, each of which has an interest, or stake in a given policy sector and the capacity to help determine policy success or failure. Network can be then differentiated along a continuum with highly integrated and cohesive policy communities on the one pole, and loosely integrated issue networks on the other. Along this continuum different contributions in the scientific literature have then defined particular kinds of network. That is the case of epistemic communities where groups of experts, scientists, and professionals, with recognised competence, dominate the network (Haas 1992, Verdun 1999). It is then based on shared expertise and understandings of problems and solutions particularly useful in the wake of international policy co-ordination. The advocacy coalition approach is a further expression of the interest on actor-based analysis of policy-making. In that case, the network consists of actors sharing not only knowledge but also policy goals and values (a belief system). The role (over a long period of time) of non-state actors and agencies is thus decisive for the adoption of policy decisions (Sabatier 1988).
Three features of the EU polity, in particular, seem to be more usefully explainable through the PNA. Firstly, a part of decisions at the EU level is adopted through a set of actors, and lobbies that are not under the precise scrutiny of political institutions. There, the political authority is weak and fragmented. The study of the functioning of mechanisms for the interaction of élites, as well as of the nature of the information exchanged, is decisive to understand the policy-making procedures and its main outcomes.
Secondly, policy-formulation process at supranational level is much more complicated than that at national level. Much different kind of committees, working groups, officials, and experts, each with its agenda, coexist and interact to influence decisions and their implementation. What is more, these sets vary between sectors and policy fields. The EU is usually depicted as a ‘differiantiated polity’ characterised by ‘polycentricity’ (Peterson 2003).
Thirdly, and consequently, such a ‘meso-level’ decision-making is particularly important at the European level, where the role of bureaucracy and élites has a greater impact than at the national level (Peterson and Bomberg 1999). Technical expertise and specialised knowledge represent critical resources in a more de-politicised context.
For all these reasons the policy network analysis can help explain outcomes of the European Union policy-making. In particular, it can be used for improving the understanding of the early phases of that process when decisions are formulated and shaped, as well as of the later stage of their implementation.
While this approach has been adopted for the study of different policy fields (e.g. telecommunications, regional policy, agriculture, etc.), it seems particularly useful for social policies. In this context, in fact, different contributions in the scientific literature have shown the relevance of policy communities for the development of a more active role of the EU (especially in the field of health and safety, and gender policy) (Falkner 1999, Wendler 2001). As argued by Falkner (1999), especially after the adoption of the Maasricht Treaty, the rapid increase of the inclusion and consultation of interest groups and actors from civil society has characterised the social policy-making. This in turn led to the transformation of the EU governance towards a ‘corporatist’ policy community.
As to the pension policy, in particular, the contribution by Dudek and Omtzigt (2002) allows us to define the main ways different actors (and networks) acts (and interacts) at the European level. These authors distinguish five means by which the EU influences the options available for pension reform. They can be easely redefined in terms of a plurality of networks which combines both national and supra-national actors.
First, through the forums for discussion created by the EU, ideas are spread, awareness raised, and policy networks created. It is in the realm of ideas, their circulation, and their legitimacy that influence makes itself felt. At the European level, different documents mobilise these policy networks. Reform of capital markets are subject to the Cardiff process; matters concerning Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), are shaped by the Broad Economic Policy Guidelines (BEPG) and matters of employment, by the Luxembourg process. (For a description of these, see CEC 2002a).
Second, economic integration and monetary union is making all member states more conscious of the policies pursued by their neighbours. In this context, it becomes more legitimate to hold each of them to account. This has led, for example, to the Dutch employers seeking reforms to the French and Italian pension systems, because they ran the risk, according to the Dutch, of skewing capital markets and the returns obtained via the Dutch pension funds.
Third, the EU has become an agenda setter for member states. The Commission has the power to impose issues that are not necessarily on national agendas, or not on the agenda at a given moment. The fact that the Commission has taken up the issue, and might have received several explicit but different mandates from the European Councils, gives it the capacity, if not the obligation, to maintain the issue as a priority on national agendas.
Fourth, some political leaders use the EU as a pretext. As a recent study by the Commission stated: ‘ … besides economic arguments, coordination can also play a useful role from a political-economy view-point by helping to implement unpopular but necessary policy actions at national level’ (CEC 2002b : 4). European level agreements offer a resource for those who are in tune with the European line of argument, at least in those countries where European integration is considered to be of positive value.
Fifth, the configuration of groups mobilised at the European level is different to that within member states. Lobbying practices or organisational forecasts at the European level do not cover national plans.
Besides these different mechanisms which, collectively, have their impact primarily in the realm of ideas, the impact of the Court of Justice must also be mentioned, particularly in its role as guardian of competition law (1). In defining what is the responsibility of national collective provision and what is legitimately a function of the market, the Court has had a decisive influence.
All these different means of influence de facto are organised and (to a certain extent) mixed along some broad lines. Having outlined the development of European discussion on how pension reform should be shaped, and considered various mechanisms for communicating these between the national and European levels, in the following section we try to define the three main networks (represented by institutions, social partners, lobbies, experts, officials, etc.) activated in the last years. The first is the network in the regulation of pensions with the aim to increase the efficiency of the single market. The second is the network built around the economic integration, while the third (and last) concerned the social dimension and has been built through the OMC process.
3. TOWARDS A SINGLE MARKET (OF PENSIONS)
European action in the area of complementary pensions is based on two aspects of the EU treaty. First, free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, and second, competition policy. In both these areas, authority to act at the European level is powerful, and has been validated by innumerable rulings by the European Court of Justice. There are two strands to this debate: on the one hand, showing the ways in which freedom of movement is hindered where (second and third pillar) (2) pensions are concerned; and on the other, how free competition between economic agents is unduly constrained. As Math (2001b) noted, various economic actors are pushing for complementary social protection systems—that are currently very much embedded at national level, are often compulsory and monopolistic, benefiting from protective fiscal arrangements—to be subject to European competition policy, and to competition from other sectors (insurance companies, and pension funds). It is clearly no coincidence that European discussion developed under the auspices of liberal European Commissioners.
This has happened in several stages, during which argument has become more focussed. The first attempts failed miserably. In the context of creating the single market, a new directive on institutions for retirement provision had to be withdrawn under pressure from several member states. In 1996, the European Federation for Retirement Pensions (EFRP) regretted this failure to accomplish the three objectives it had identified as priorities (De Ryck 1996): freedom of cross-border investment management, of cross-border investment, of cross-border membership.3
The Green Paper on complementary pensions (CEC 1997) revived this initiative. This aimed to establish a community framework of ‘prudential regulation’, and fiscal regulation and to reduce the obstacles to labour mobility. This Green Paper was to play a crucial role. Mindful of previous failure, the tone adopted on institutional questions was very cautious. It specified that each state is free to choose how it divides its pension system between the three pillars—the first pillar is and will remain dominant, subsidiarity will apply in this area, and so on. The objective is evidently modest—to encourage diversification within a framework dominated by state pensions: ‘State pensions (pillar 1) account for the bulk of pension payments (88 per cent), but the need to maintain levels of income in retirement is likely to result in greater reliance being placed on the other main sources of supplementary retirement income.’ The different lines of argument developed in the Green Paper provide the backbone for future action and proposals. The problems of an ageing population, and the demographic trends which form the point of departure for these documents are not dealt with here (see particularly CEC 2000a) and are well documented elsewhere.
One of the arguments in the Green Paper was that wage overheads would be less burdensome if the rate of return obtained on financial markets was higher. It gave the following example, subsequently used in various documents: ‘Assume that the target is a fixed supplementary pension of 35 per cent of salary on the basis of a 40 year working life. If the real rate of return on assets is 6 per cent, the cost is 5 per cent of salary: all other things being equal, if the real rate of return is 4 per cent, the cost is 10 per cent of salary, and if the real state of return is only 2 per cent, the cost is 19 per cent of salary.’ The market needs to be as integrated as possible, so that returns will rise. However, behind this argument lies another argument, that is not explicit but nevertheless evident: as the rate of return from a PAYG system is fairly weak, a partial switch to a private system would be as beneficial for employers as it would be for workers.
Hard on the heels of the Green Paper, in May 1998 the Commission deposited a Financial Services Action Plan, which was endorsed at the Cologne European Council in June 1999. One of the strategic objectives of this Plan was to establish a genuine single market for wholesale financial transactions. The adoption of legislative provisions on investments by the Institutions for Occupational Retirement Provision (IORPs) was presented in the Plan as a prerequisite for attaining this objective. Later, the Lisbon European Council placed strong emphasis on the need to integrate financial services and markets within the EU. A single financial market was seen as a key factor in promoting the competitiveness of the European economy, the development of the new economy, and social cohesion. In its conclusions, the Presidency stressed that priority must be given to removing the remaining barriers to investment in the field of pension funds. Moreover, it called for the Plan to be implemented by 2005. The Lamfallussy report of 15 February 2001 on the regulation of the European security market went back to the usual arguments favouring the development of private pensions and pension funds.
A second line of argument is that of mobility. Even though interstate labour mobility is still very weak, supporters of pension policy development will reverse the argument. Movement of workers is weak because a number of obstacles prevent workers from exercising their right to freedom of movement in full. This will lead the Commission to present a Communication on a new labour market, open to all, with access for all. This is followed by a plan of action to promote mobility. Following the recommendations of the Veil report on freedom of movement, the Commission set up a Pensions Forum (formally established by the JOCE L196 decision, 20.07.2001) which met for the first time in 2000. Its role is to help the Commission resolve problems linked with cross-border movement. It has indicated that the Commission is willing to increase the number of participants. It represents states and social partners, as well as retirement funds, insurance companies and investment societies. The aim is to depoliticise the discussion and neutralise the ideology surrounding the issue, to turn it into a technical matter. This led to a consultation in June 2002 of the social partners (European TUC, ETUC; Union of Industrial and Employer’s Confederations of Europe, UNICE; and European Association of Public Sector Employers, CEEP) on the portability of private pension rights. The trade unions have responded comparatively positively to this consultation. Moreover, other interest groups and lobbies have been included in the forum. For example, the European Older People’s Platform (AGE) has been a member since 2001. AGE is a network of non-profit organizations of older people, involved in a range of policy and information activities to put older people’s issues on the EU agenda. It is co-financed by its members and by the European Commission (AGE 2003).
Two other aspects were also addressed in the Green Paper. Tax systems: ‘Taxation plays an important role in pension provision and scheme design, providing privileged treatment at the level of contributions, fund income and capital gains, and benefit payments. There are regulations in place to control how these fiscal privileges are used.’ (ch. V). Following from this, on the 19 April 2001, the Commission adopted a Communication on the elimination of tax obstacles to the cross-border provision of occupational pensions. (Difficulties arising from differences in taxation systems are subject to other EU initiatives and are not dealt with in any detail here. For a recent analysis, see Radaelli 2002). ‘Prudential regulations’ (ch. III) are also discussed. The strategy of issuing the Green Paper has proved to be a smart move, as in this way the Commission has managed to keep the upper hand, and use the responses to the Green Paper as a basis for setting out new proposals.
These different elements allowed the Commission to set out a proposal in October 2000 for a Directive on institutions for occupational retirement provision (pension funds, superannuation schemes, etc.). The aim was to create a prudential framework at the EU level strong enough to protect the rights of future pensioners and to increase the affordability of occupational pensions. The draft Directive did also seek to enable an institution in one Member State to manage company pension schemes in other member states. Once again, this proposal gave rise to numerous debates, but finally the ECOFIN Council agreed to it in June 2002. On May 2003, the Council of Ministers adopted it. Consistent with the debate mentioned above, the directive is based on the ‘prudent person principle’ (e.g. investments in the best interest of beneficiaries, diversification to ensure security, liquidity, and profitability, assets to be predominantly invested in regulated markets), disclosure (more information to the schemes’ members), and cross-border activities (companies are able to sponsor IORPs based in other member states) (Directive 2003/41).
Having outlined the main documents and their underlying logic, we now turn to the agencies and institutions who contribute to this section of EU discussion. Amongst these, the European Parliament (4), the Economic and Social Committee, and the financial services sector have been pressing for several years for the establishment of a European framework for IORPs. If some member states have been (very) reticent, others have, however, shown their support for the Commission’s initiatives.
At the parliamentary level, the Pension Forum of the European Parliament was activated in 2003, on the initiative of Duch EMPs (AGIRC ARRCO 2003). It is a (private) platform for dialogue with the aim to favour the analysis and the knowledge of funded occupational schemes, through the exchange of information between the Commission (DG Internal Market, DG Employment and Social Affairs, and DG Economic Affaires), and the representatives of insurance institutions. Its main sponsor is represented by pension funds for civil servants in the Netherlands. The European Insurance and Reinsurance Federation (CEA), the European Association of Paritarian Institutions of Social Protection (AEIP), and the EFRP are part of the steering committee of the forum (Natali 2004c).5
Thus, there are numerous private actors in the field. They act as a classic lobby (the European Federation of Fund Managers (FEFSI), the CEA and the EFRP) to obtain amendments and advance their interests—which are not always identical, as can be seen by the tension between the CEA and the EFRP (see Math 2001c) over the Commission’s proposal on the activities of occupational retirement funds. In 2003, the EFRP launched a second report to propose a strategy to deal with the emergence of pan-European occupational funds based on national sections (EFRP 2003). In the same period, the annual report of FEFSI described the Directive 2003/41 as a ‘…significant step forward towards a single market for financial services, (but) it did not reach what should have been its main goal, the creation of a true level playing field for all financial institutions. (Thus) FEFSI and its members will have to monitor carefully the transposition of the Directive into national legislation and encourage the national legislator “to go the right way”…’ (FEFSI 2003).6
One of the strategies is to legitimise their demands by producing, or referring to, academic studies in the field. In this context, the role of the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), a group of about forty senior industrialists (7), is significant. The ERT set up a working party chaired by De Benedetti which produced a document entitled: ‘European pensions, an appeal for reform—Pensions schemes that Europe can really afford’ published by the De Benedetti Foundation (ERT 2002) and widely publicised in the media. As Math (2001b) describes it: “The Foundation has links with leading edge researchers and university personnel, in which one party may not know, or may not seek to know, the close working links between this research centre and the ERT. Its work is presented as inde-pendent research, brings a scientific legitimacy to political recommendations, and is widely disseminated notably within a sympathetic financial press”.
This stance adopted by one sector of European employers is in strong contrast to UNICE, which brings together national employers’ federations, and has kept a very low profile on this issue. It was only in November 2001 that UNICE adopted a ‘Strategy Paper on Sustainability of Pensions’. UNICE points out clearly that ‘there is no single European model of pension system. A ‘one size fits all’ solution is neither desirable, nor appropriate or feasible across the EU’. The EU should, therefore, play a fairly modest role, and the only justification for the EU to pursue national pension reforms is to maintain the stability of the Eurozone (Arcq and Pochet 2002).
In the field of private pensions, Europe has a particular role to play in bringing together an asymmetrical group of interested parties. Commission, through two commissioners with strong personalities, Brittan in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and Bolkenstein in the early 2000s, has been an important catalyst for putting this subject onto the EU’s agenda. The demand for a radical change has been vocal: ‘Defusing Europe’s pensions timebomb’ was the title of a speech by Bolkenstein (2001). For all that, it is hard to make the interests they defend a priority for the Commission as a whole, or to win them support from the wider group of member states. For the time being, various elements have been brought together to develop a more sustained approach. Beyond the general issue of an ageing population, that of the mobility of workers has become more central. Faced with a failure to force the issue, the argu-ment has become more neutral—a pragmatic resolution must be found to the practical problems of labour mobility. Networks favourable to pension funds, and a greater role for private pensions are using the ‘Annual Report on Structural Reforms’, published in the framework of the Cardiff process (which focused on the market reforms for goods and capital) to support their ideas. Nevertheless, this process is subordinate to the BEPG which are controlled by the Ministers of Finance (see later) (CEC 2001a).
In such a context, as indicated above, the Court of Justice played an important role. Basic public pensions, like other social security mechanisms, are not subject to competition policy. Third pillar provision, however, is bound by competition rules. For other schemes of supplementary retirement income (the second pillar), the situation is less clear. The Court of Justice is increasingly inclined to pronounce on this subject, and in the absence of clear-cut norms exempting complementary forms of social protection from European competition law, it tends to override the liberal economic logic which stems from the texts of the Rome Treaty. Since the Albany judgement (C-67/96 Albany International BV v. Stichting Bedrijfspensioenfonds Textielindustrie) it seems that the Court may have struck a balance in how it interprets what is and what is not a collective ‘second pillar’ pension scheme, excluded from competition law (Bosco 2000). It should also be noted that the reform of the treaties adopted at Nice (2000) had added a phrase to article 137 which reads: ‘ (…) shall not affect the right of Member States to define the fundamental principles of their social security systems and must not significantly affect the finan-cial equilibrium thereof’. This implies that the Court could not overturn the fundamental balance within each national system, nor the financial aspects which are evidently a central to pensions. Finally, the Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted at the European Council at Nice (2000) changed the balance between the economic mission of the EU and other, more general—notably social—objectives. Its inclusion in the agreements issued by the Convention on the Future of Europe, and the relative intergovernmental conferences, should reinforce the attitude of the Court of Justice in its concern not to destabilise the national equilibrium of member states. Nevertheless, some uncertainty remains.
4. THE ECONOMIC AND MONETARY STABILITY OF THE EUROPEAN UNION
The second line of discussion developing at European level, stems from the ministries of Finance and their advisory committees, particularly the Economic Policy Committee (EPC), and the Economic and Financial Committee (EFC). The issue is less freedom of movement and competition policy, than the stability of the monetary union. Public, non-prefunded pensions are the focus here. This issue will come to a head in the medium to long term, 2020-40. The declarations of the ECOFIN Councils, and the various statements from the European Councils are not addressed here (for a detailed description, see de la Porte 2002b; de la Porte and Pochet 2002a). Here, the focus is on the normative descriptions presented in the various documents, and their progressive consolidation.
The battle between the ministries of Economic Affairs, and Social Affairs over who should have the last word has acted as a dynamic in this area. The first initiative to address the issue of pension reform came in 1997 from the EPC, without having a specific mandate to deal with this issue. Its guiding philosophy was that pension reform needed to be adapted to the circumstances of an ageing population, while ensuring durable fiscal consolidation and improving the condition of European labour markets. The arguments put forward to reform the pension scheme—the demographic argument, the fiscal burden argument, and the labour market efficiency argument—have become permanent features in the architecture of European pension debates. The principal recommendation was containing benefits, as the main instrument for guaranteeing the solvency of PAYG pension systems. The principal means prescribed to achieve this aim was by delaying the age of retirement. A second recommendation was to move away from a solidarity-based system to a pension system based on individual contributions. A third recommendation was to gradually increase the role of funded schemes.
Following this first exercise, a work schedule for validating these propositions by means of various reports has been produced (de la Porte and Pochet 2002b). In 2000 the EPC submitted a new, more substantial report which tried, on the basis of shared national assumptions (in particular about demographic projections), to evaluate the burden of public pensions in terms of percentage of GDP up to 2050 (for a critical view of these baseline hypotheses see Math 2001a, Math and Pochet 2001; for quite different projections, see Fitoussi and Le Cacheux 2002). According to conclusions based on two different future scenarios, one that could be described as normal, the other based on the Lisbon objectives (i.e. raising the employment rate progressively), pension expenditures as a percentage of GDP are on the rise. The effects on public debt, in particular, were emphasised. The EPC put forward four recommendations:
Reforms should primarily aim at delaying retirement.
Fiscal policy should be rendered more sound and public debt should progressively be reduced.
The link between social contributions and benefits at the individual level should be strengthened, in accordance with the equity principle.
The role of funded schemes should be progressively increased.
These recommendations will be quickly taken up in economic and financial circles (see Mantel 2001). A second report was presented on the question of long-term financing, and consideration of the effects of ageing was to be to the costs linked to healthcare (EPC 2001). A working group was set up (Ageing Working Group, AWG) which analysed the effects of parametric reforms (EPC 2002). Three aspects were measured: indexation, postponing the age of retirement, and a retirement more closely linked to life expectancy. The report concluded that, with variations between countries and systems, these three variables should be applied. It mounts an energetic plea for postponing retirement age, because, according to its calculations, this measure not only has a positive effect in terms of global cost, but—most importantly—does not cause a reduction in the relative level of pensions (as would any change in the rules of indexation). Note that this conforms to the central objective of the European Strategy, to raise the employment rate to 70 per cent, and the employment rate for people over 55 to 50 per cent. In 2003, the EPC published a further report on ‘The impact of ageing on public finances’ (EPC 2003). This work stressed the present and future impact of demographic trends not only on pensions but also on other key policy sectors (e.g. health care, long-term care, unemployment, etc.). Stressing the mandate received from the European Councils of Stockholm (March 2001) and of Barcelona (March 2002), the EPC presented a series of information and indicators to assess the sustainability of public finances. As to pensions, the report took into account some of the reforms adopted by single member states in the late 1990s and beginning of 2000s. The EPC drew some key conclusions and proposed some clear requirements. Member states were grouped in four clusters according to the source of pot’ential budget imbalances and the seriousness of risks.
One related aspect should be stressed. The Lisbon Council (2000) mandated the Commission to prepare a study on ‘the contribution of public finances to growth and employment: improving quality and sustainability’ (CEC 2000a, b). This study also deals with the question of retirement pensions. This question of the quality of public expenditure is important because it gives direction to a number of players in the heart of the Commission. The argument runs as follows: ‘Good’ public expenditure has to be distinguished from other public expenditure. For example, investment, education, active measures to stimulate employment are all ‘good’ areas of expenditure. In this context, and assuming budgets need to be reduced, pensions are in the front line of the category of ‘bad’ expenditure. This is a strategy for the medium term. Rather than a direct intervention in the pension debate, what we see here is an attempt to reach a common definition about what is or is not acceptable in terms of public expenditure.
The European Central Bank is one of the most important players in this debate. It has, in various documents, shown its concern for the budgetary stability of public (non-prefinanced) pensions, and recommends lowering the ratios of public debt, the establishment of financial reserves, and pursuing with ‘even greater determination’ social security reform. More specifically, the ECB is interested in the effects of ageing on decisions to consume or save, and, through this, on interest rates and the state of public finances.
The BEPG is the key document structuring the networks surrounding the ministers of Finance. In 2001 the ECOFIN Council proposed that in future one part of the BEPG should be devoted to ageing and its financial implications. Member states should develop strategies for addressing the longer-term demographic challenge and present them in conjunction with their Stability and Convergence Programmes. The strategies should be examined in the context of multilateral surveillance). This proposal was accepted by the European Council (8).
The emergence of the EMU as central to the economic debate on pensions has brought about an important change. Here, we find ourselves at the heart of the European project, and current debates on governance: how to make monetary union work when economic controls are, essentially, decentralised. The national actors who carry forward these discussions—including the sustainability of pensions—are central to the architecture of Europe (the ECOFIN Council). ECOFIN is supported by committees which benefit equally from the strength of their members’ national institutions (numerous econometric studies are similarly coordinated). Contrary to the debates linked to the internal market, which are very ideological, the EPC studies do not support, as an a priori position, a greater role for private pensions. In numerous documents, the risks linked to second and third pillar pensions are underlined (9). Nevertheless, if the analyses are more subtle, the political conclusions are the same (and sometimes seem disconnected from the analysis). The central argument employed by the EPC to justify a greater role for private initiatives is, classically, that of the diversification of risk. One might note here that the EPC studies move away from econometric calculations as such, to engage more substantially, and in a more normative way, with the performance of the various national systems.
5. PENSIONS: A SOCIAL QUESTION?
If free movement and the impact of EMU have contributed to the shaping of the community discussions, this has happened without the national ministers in charge of pensions pronouncing on the subject. On the one hand, there is no clear legal responsibility in the Treaty, and on the other, there is such a wide diversity of national systems, and of reforms already implemented or under way. The issues in terms of medium term financing play a greater or lesser role from country to country. However, in the end, a negative reason has forced them, with reluctance, to address the question: The risk that the problematic nature of pension reform could be shaped by actors other than themselves. As Chassard (2001: 317) notes “It is important that the ‘social experts’ should make their voices heard in this concert, so as not to leave the field open to those who view social protection from an exclusively financial angle”. It is worth noting here, an immediate reaction on the part of the Council of ministers of Social Affairs: a Social Protection Committee (SPC) was created as an initial step. This was immediately given the task of producing a report setting out the evidence on the social aspects of pensions.
In the draft report, the SPC views the inter-linkage of different areas (social protection, employment, and public finance) as crucial. The main message is ‘it will be important to bear in mind that financial sustainability cannot be achieved at the expense of the ability of pension systems to meet their social goals’. Only one paragraph is devoted to the reasons for dealing with the issue at European level. This is the weak point of the social approach: If a purely financial definition of the problem is to be resisted, a positive definition of common social objectives is required and this is always problematic (10). This partly because some Social Affairs ministers share the objective of reforming their national pension system with their Finance ministers (see de la Porte and Pochet 2002a).
The creation of a new network around the SPC is designed to analyse pension reform from a more social angle. From the outset, this group is more heterogeneous than its economic counterpart (the EPC), and needs to establish its own legitimacy as much from the analyses it produces as from its political and ideological dealings with the EPC. Nevertheless, the institutional development gives an indication of the dynamic nature of the issue being studied. In this context, the Belgian Minister of Social Affairs and Pensions, Frank Vandenbroucke, played a key role particularly during the Belgian Presidency in convincing his colleagues to adopt common objectives, and then in developing indicators to enable the open method of coordination to be applied. He also commissioned a report during the Belgian Presidency, edited by Esping-Andersen (2001) that set out the reasons for a common social approach to pensions. Following this, and the EPC report (see previous section), the European Council approved three major overall objectives as well as the application of the open method of coordination. These are to:
(1) maintain social cohesion and social solidarity, notably reducing the risk of poverty;
(2) safeguard the financial sustainability of pension systems, in particular by improving employment performance, by adapting the structure and the parameters of pensions systems, and by increasing the budgetary room for manoeuvre;
(3) adapt pension systems to a changing society and labour markets.
To make these very general principles more concrete, the EPC and the SPC were given the task of producing a joint paper. They finally agreed on eleven objectives (SPC and EPC 2001). Over and above the specific content of these objectives, discussion centred on two wider elements: control over the decision-making process and the role of the BEPGs as a key document. Nevertheless, even if the wording is hazy and ambiguous, some considerations merit attention: First, the hierarchy of objectives that places social considerations to the fore; second, the minimum priority accorded to questions of the internal market and labour mobility; third, the priority given to macroeconomic issues—five objectives mention these. These eleven objectives offer a structure for future EU work in this area and discussions will be shaped by this matrix. That said, the tensions between the different approaches have not disappeared, but have gained a framework from the document.
The working agenda for pensions has been defined. In September 2002 member states presented their first National Strategy Reports for pensions (available on the Commission’s website) following the eleven principles defined at European level. These reports are explicit about the need to negotiate changes to pension systems, particularly with the trades unions, and several were drafted jointly by different ministers, which will strengthen their legitimacy. The Commission will analyse the national strategy reports and identify good practice and innovative approaches of common interest to the member states. In spring 2003, the Council and the Commission provided a joint report to assess national pension strategies and identify good practice. For 2004, they assess the objectives and working methods established and will decide upon the objectives, methods, and timetable for the future of the pension strategy (SPC and EPC 2001). In 2005, a new round of National Strategy Reports for both old and new member states is expected.
Moreover, the need for a more effective strategy to confront these problems has led the European institutions to update the various OMCs as from 2006. The Communication presented by the Commission in 2003 was the most important proposal yet for streamlining and simplifying the coordination between social protection and the existing processes established by the Treaty. The principal aim was to launch simultaneously, in 2006, the second three-year cycle of economic and employment policy coordination as well as the new streamlined objectives for social protection. This document has helped to define common objectives for all three pillars of social protection: social inclusion, pensions, health and long-term care.
The common objectives are to replace the separate sets of objectives existing for each field as from 2006. Although ever since Lisbon the OMC for pensions has incorporated the other mechanisms provided for by the Treaty, an attempt is made for the first time in this Communication to replace the methods in force in the three above-mentioned sectors with a general open method of coordination for social protection (Natali, 2004c).
At the same time the EPC and the SPC were asked to ‘develop common approaches and comparability with regard to indicators in order to under-pin the open method of coordination relating to the future of pensions. This cooperation should cover the preparation of simulations and projections relating to the medium and long-term prospects and implications of pension policies’. An interim report of the Indicators Sub-Group (ISG) of the SPC notes: ‘difficulty arises from the need to define common indicators that are comparable with the wide diversity of pension systems found across the Member States. The common objectives agreed in Laeken can be achieved by very different pension systems and different combinations of public and private provision. Common indicators will have to be neutral to the architecture of a country’s pension system’ (SPC 2002). In 2004, the Indicator Sub-Group of the SPC has published a series of interim reports dealing with such a challenge. They have been mainly centred on statistics on the adequacy and the financial sustainability of public programmes (first pillar) and supplementary schemes (second and third pillars) (SPC 2004a, 2004b, 2004c). Much of the effort of the ISG focused on the definition of theoretical replacement ratios upon retirement, as correct indicator to measure the income situation of the elderly population (SPC 2004a). A further aspect has been related to the assessment of the role of supplementary pillars to improve the adequacy of pension systems (SPC 2004b, 2004c).
The definition of such information proved particularly difficult (if compared to that on social inclusion). As argued by Pena-Casas (2004), the long debate on the definition of viable data on pensions has assumed some particular aspects. On the one hand, the action of the SPC has been highly related to national procedures. Each modification to hypothesis used to calculate the replacement rates implies first calculations at the national level, then their collection and analysis at the ISG level. This procedure has proved particularly rigide. On the other hand, hypothesis for the definition of projections on pension programmes adequacy have been hugely based on statistics from other EU bodies than the SPC. It is the case of data on productivity, and wages provided by the EPC and the EMCO. All these factors tend to limit the autonomy of the SPC group. Then, a further limit has consisted of the national divergence on calculating certain ratios. For instance, the poverty rates for age classes lack a common definition, while single countries adopt different indicators.
As to social partners and their role in the OMC, it is particularly limited (especially if compared to the Social Inclusion OMC and the European Employment Strategy). Only the last of eleven objectives introduces the element of participation (…to promote the broadest possible consensus regarding pension policies and reforms…) (de la Porte and Pochet 2002b). Their influence operates mainly through the consultation by the Social Protection Committee. Hence, it is more lobbying (informal consultation in non-formalised, open and fluent communities) than networking (active promotion of interest groups) (see Wendler 2001). As for the ETUC, it creates a working group on social protection. In February 2003, it published a communication on the Joint Report on pensions. It was a precise critique of some of its parts: e.g. the risk of subordination of the social goals to a pure economic logic, and the need for more attention to the financial viability of private supplementary schemes (and not only of the public pillar) (ETUC 2003). What is more, the ETUC has activated a further ad hoc working group on Pension Funds. European trade unions have then tried to strenght the coopertation with social NGOs. In 2001, the Platform of European Social NGOs and the ETUC adopted a joint communication on to promote the social dimension of the EU and in particular on social protection (Natali 2004c).11 As well as in the ‘Single Market’ network, AGE has been particularly active in lobbying European institutions for the defence of ‘social goals’ related to pension systems through the OMC (AGE 2003b).
A further aspect able to improve the participation of interest groups in the OMC pensions is the represented by the reduced tensions between and within social actors. After a period of contrast until the beginning of the new century, in Septembre 2003, the European social partners (CES, UNICE, UEAPME et CEEP) sent a lettre commune to the Commission on social protection and the streamlining of OMCs in this field. In that occasion, social actors declared to be favourable to their rationalisation, but stressed the need to take each single policy specificities into account. Moreover, they asked for improvements in their inclusion in the process of co-ordination, and in the peer rewiew phase in particular (CES, UNICE, UEAPME, CEEP 2003).
The question of pensions emerged as an issue to address at European level in different respects. If we refer back to the five sources of influence outlined in the second section, a range of developments can be identified. First of all, there are now at least three policy networks.
First of all, this happened with the decision to complete the single market. At this point, in the absence of any legal alternative, the DG responsible for the internal market took up the issue, not the DG responsible for social affairs. Nevertheless, during the 1990s various actors, especially economic and financial players, have become increasingly involved. The network, centred on the internal market directorate, consists of numerous lobbying groups sustained—willingly or not—by academic networks that are influential in their field. The issue was revived by the Green Paper, and then by the Directive 2003/41 on supplementary pensions. It was also a consequence of the single currency. This last required more integrated financial markets. The Pensions Forum related to the Commission (and to a lesser extent the forum of the Parliament on the same issue) contributed to open that circle to social partners and civil society. The different institutions shared the same guidelines and policy goals while other non-state actors showed more differentiated arguments.
The second consists of the macroeconomists around the EPC. Here, the groups involved are always asymmetrical, and the unions are always poorly represented. Although the member states control the agenda with precise mandates determined by the Heads of State and national governments, the Commission now has the mission of keeping this agenda, and its associated reforms, open at national level. Discussion has had to take on board different interests, and become less fragmented than previously. National reforms undertaken under the auspices of qualifying for monetary union (France and Italy are examples of this) have stimulated debate on more significant and radical reforms (see Boeri, Siebert, etc.). Even though calls for reform have been strident and relayed by one pressure group or another (see the De Benedetti Foundation), their impact on the ongoing development of European discussion has been marginal. In this particular network, institutions (Commission, Ecofin Council, ECB, etc.) adopted a clear and coherent approach promoting the financial sustainability of pension programmes.
At the same time, the ministers of Social Affairs have succeeded in placing other aspects, going beyond the financial, on the agenda. They have also managed, thanks to the support of the Social Protection Committee, to develop the common understanding necessary for further discussion. One other aspect has also emerged: the sustainability of public finances. Here, the main focus is on unfunded schemes. However, the outline of the problem developed within this framework does not entirely marry up with the concerns of those inclined to favour private pensions. This third network, much more fragmented, surrounds the SPC, which aims to place greater emphasis on the social purpose of pensions. It is a typical loosely coordinated issue(s) network where non-state actors (both social partners and social NGOs) participate just through the consultation by the SPC.
Rather than radical reform, the discussions taking place at European level propose incremental change, touching on a range of issues, where efforts are made to reconcile apparently contradictory objectives (collective solidarity and market forces). This, in turn, touches on the close link between the problem of pensions and employment strategies (raising the employment rate and the age of retirement). Radical proposals have had little effect, as the less publicised second rather disillusioned report by De Benedetti notes, with reference to the impact of the first report (2002).
Despite the persistent weakness of non-state actors in the different networks described in this article, their recent evolution seems to provide the base for the potential re-definition of the debate on pensions between the national and supra-national level. While the political game at the national level is still based on the interaction of governments and social partners (as showed by our previous articles for this research project), such actors started to play a two-level game. They profited of the European level for reinforcing their position and strategies. At the same time, European institutions started to adopt a broader approach to pensions, related to coexistence of economic, financial, and social goals. Given the scenario that the interests represented are wider, and documents show greater agreement, Europe can become a resource for those who want to initiate or pursue reforms drawing on a range of approaches: parametric reforms, public prefinanced reforms (thanks to budgetary surpluses), or recipes for privatisation, under the auspices of the second pillar. What is clear is that the way forward will be based more on continuity than change at national level.