chapter  8
8 Same as it ever was? The (lack of ) influence of European integration on corporatism in the Low Countries
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Introduction In this chapter, we address the second research question of the volume; that is to say, whether European integration has substantially transformed the consensual mode of politics in the Low Countries. To this end, we shall examine to what extent European integration has influenced the modus operandi of corporatism in the socioeconomic area, and its outcome. A policy process in corporatism is essentially a negotiation process that can be conducted with more or less conflict (modus operandi). A negotiation process usually also has an outcome: an agreement among the corporatist actors or absence of such an agreement. But how do we conceptualize corporatism? This question is important because “the term corporatism has been characterized by ambiguity, imprecision, and a liberal, rather undisciplined usage” (Molina and Rhodes 2002: 306). Most scholars conceptualize corporatism as a structure and system, defining it as a model of state and policy-making in which social partners (can) intervene. In this chapter, we instead conceptualize corporatism by looking at the behavior of corporatist actors (trade unions, employer organizations, and the government), viewing corporatism as a strategy for conflict regulation that these actors can use (Woldendorp 2005: 4). We assume that governments have various strategies at their disposal, ranging from a corporatist strategy of formulating and implementing socioeconomic policy, to imposing policies on employers’ organizations and/ or trade unions, or, conversely, to abstaining from intervention altogether. Also, trade unions and employers’ organizations can opt for various modes of behavior. They can cooperate or opt for confrontation with each other or with the government. This conceptualization enables us to provide insight into the effect of the process of European integration on interest group politics by focusing on how it has affected the behavior of social partners and governments, as well as the outcome of socioeconomic policy-making. We hereby offer an addition to the chapter on interest group politics in general (Chapter 7). There is ample discussion in the literature about if, how, and to what extent European integration influences corporatism (for an extensive discussion, see Afonso 2010: Chapter 3). The assumption that European integration has changed the opportunity structure of domestic actors (see, e.g., Beyers and Bursens,

forthcoming) and, therefore, likely influences corporatist policy-making (Fontana 2011), is a plausible one. But in which direction does this influence – if present at all – go in the Low Countries? Some studies argue that European integration “strengthens corporatist tendencies in the small European states” (Katzenstein 2003: 25), and that it has fostered new forms of policy concertation and tripartite social dialogue (Molina and Rhodes 2002).1 The latter could be seen as an example of European integration having changed the form or type of corporatism (Traxler 2004). Other scholars demonstrate that the influence of European integration likely runs in the negative direction, with corporatist policy-making being weakened by it (Fontana 2011: 655, 667-8). Yet again, other scholars have found little change in corporatist practices due to European integration. Focusing on four small European democracies, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Sweden, Falkner and Leiber (2004: 246) show that while Europeanization has slightly converged state-society cooperation, the corporatist system in Luxembourg has not changed under the influence of the European Union (EU). Also, actor strategies have not changed in Luxembourg. This country has, however, started to experiment with “type B” corporatism, in which the state gives erga omnes effect to social partner agreements (see Falkner and Leiber 2004: Tables 1 and 3). Furthermore, Enderlein (2006) shows that neither Belgium nor the Netherlands have changed their wage-setting institutions as a result of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Our findings for the Low Countries corroborate this last strand of research. Specifically, we argue that European integration has hardly changed the modus operandi or outcome of corporatism in the socioeconomic sphere in the Low Countries. If we focus on the period 1990-2010, but also if we go back to the 1970s, the Dutch style of corporatism is best described as “business as usual.” The social partners (i.e., trade unions and employer organizations) and the government more or less continuously attempted to arrive at joint policy agreements, but did not always achieve that goal or achieve it consistently. Agreements, government imposed policies, and uncoordinated policies all occurred, but (trying to achieve) agreement was the usual pattern of policy formulation and implementation. The Belgian case, conversely, was an example of corporatism in decline. Specifically, the social partners and the federal government either ceased to try to arrive at joint and generalized political exchange or were unwilling or unable to come to a policy agreement, despite repeated attempts by one or two of the actors. The results, hereof, have been government-imposed policies, uncoordinated policies, or an alternation between the two. Finally, Luxembourg’s very dense, tripartite and encompassing corporatist system displayed in terms of outcomes its first real change only in 2006 when – after over 40 years – automatic wage indexation to inflation was temporarily suspended until early 2010, as the result of a tripartite agreement. In the Low Countries, European integration thus seems to have been incorporated as an additional, essentially external factor in the process of national corporatist policy-making.2