Open method of coordination (OMC)

Originally developed to aid delivery of the Lisbon Strategy for economic reform, the ‘open method of coordination’ is a system for defining and pursuing policy objectives within the European Union without recourse to formal legal acts and in a way that often involves a range of actors beyond the EU institutions themselves. It relies on guidelines and indicators, rather than formal, legal obligations, to achieve its goals. The open method is best adapted to policy-making in those areas where the competence of the Union is relatively weak, especially if the active involvement of regional and local authorities or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is sought. Commitments made in the OMC process may be deemed examples of ‘soft law’.

‘Integration through talk’, as it was once characterised by a finance minister in the 1980s, has always been an important component of EU policy-making, sometimes backed by resolutions or recommendations of the Council of Ministers. However, what is now known as the open method of coordination emerged on a piecemeal basis during the late 1990s, with the development of a European Employment Strategy and of the so-called Luxembourg (1997) Cardiff (1998) and Cologne (1999) processes, agreed at European Council meetings in those cities, dealing with the coordination of member-state policies for respectively employment, structural reform and the general economy. The perceived advantage of such an approach was that it enabled smaller member states, in particular, to learn from larger countries about how they were tackling difficult social reforms (for example, reform of pensions and social security systems), without tying the hands of the latter in a binding way.

The open method was formalised and defined at the Lisbon European Council in March 2000, soon after the entry into office of Romano Prodi as President of the European Commission. Presented as part of Prodi’s new ‘European governance’ agenda, the OMC was defined at Lisbon as a process ‘designed to help member states to progressively develop’ policies, by fixing guidelines, accompanied by timetables, by establishing indicators and benchmarks ‘as a means of comparing best prac­tice’, by adjusting those guidelines so that they can be transposed to and applied at the national and regional level, and by setting up systems for ‘periodic monitor­ing, evaluation and peer review’.

The Lisbon Strategy committed member states to a series of significant policy goals – notably increasing investment in research and development to three per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and raising the proportion of the working-age population in employment from 61 to 70 per cent in ten years – and these objectives were codified in ‘national action plans’ (NAPs) of a voluntary nature. A similar approach characterises ‘Europe 2020’, the successor to the Lisbon Strategy. Over time, the OMC model has been extended to cover coordination of national policies at EU level on pensions, poverty, social exclusion, youth, health, immigration and the information society. In each case, the level of ambition and precision of policy varies, as does the exact balance between EU-wide and national goals, the type of indicators used, the degree of involvement of regional, local and non-governmental actors, and the boundary between the OMC process and formal decision-making under the Treaties.

The open method has been criticised on several counts. Many Members of the European Parliament are suspicious of any policy-making that operates outside treaty procedures and avoids the ‘Community method’. It is seen as an essentially intergovernmental arrangement beyond the influence of the Parliament and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Conversely, some national civil servants and Eurosceptics fear that the open method is a subtle stratagem for informally extending EU competence and increasing the leverage of the Commission over areas of domestic policy that should more properly remain under national control. Other critics argue that, whatever its institutional implications, the fact that the OMC process relies on mutual encouragement and emulation, rather than legal force and sanctions, renders it largely ineffective in practice. For example, the repeated difficulty in getting member states to undertake some of the painful structural reforms implied by the Lisbon strategy (and its successor, ‘Europe 2020’) suggests that, without the force of law, rhetorical undertakings to European partners will always take second place to political constraints at home.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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