What “Brussels” means by structural reforms: empty signifier or constructive ambiguity?

Original Article


This paper deals with the ideas underpinning the EU’s socio-economic governance by focusing on the notion of structural reforms in the framework of the European Semester. It asks which policy ideas are constitutive of the notion of structural reforms in the EU and whether said meaning has changed over time to tackle slow growth and rising inequalities. Our demonstration is mainly grounded on a content analysis of all European Semester documents since 2011 (including Annual Growth Surveys, Alert Mechanism Reports, Euro Area Recommendations, and Country-Specific Recommendations) and completed by a short series of interviews with European and national officials involved in the European Semester. We find that, despite floating meaning, the notion of structural reforms exhibits a persisting core consisting of typically neoliberal policy recipes such as the liberalisation of products and services markets, the deregulation of labour markets, and public administration reform. At the same time, structural reforms have covered eclectic—if not contradictory—policy ideas, thus accompanying a discursive turn towards more fiscal flexibility and (social) investment. Rather than a constructive dynamic towards a renewed agenda, such ambiguity, we argue, reflects a fundamental, asymmetric ongoing battle of ideas within the EU.


European Union Structural reforms Ambiguity Economic governance European Semester Neoliberalism 


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université libre de Bruxelles, CEVIPOL CP 124BrusselsBelgium
  2. 2.Université libre de Bruxelles, CEVIPOL CP 172BrusselsBelgium

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