Understanding Policy Change in Europe Through the Prism of Convergence

Understanding Policy Change in Europe Through the Prism of Convergence - Sophie Enos-Attali, Alexandra Jonsson and Elizabeth Sheppard


This article attempts to respond to questions of public policy change that increasingly preoccupy political science given complex multilevel pressures at international and regional levels. To reveal the ways transformations at both the supranational and interstate levels constrain policymaking, and to understand the interactions at work, we first highlight how recent changes observed in domains as diverse as foreign and security policies, defense policy and family policy can be interpreted as signs of convergence. Secondly, in a more causalist perspective, we envision several variables as possible explanations of convergence. Finally, we seek to understand. convergence by observing mechanisms through which it may be produced.

Domestic Factors: Similar Challenges Framing Similar Diagnoses?

It is plausible that countries facing similar problems at the domestic level are tending to solve them in similar ways. Can domestic variables then account for change and, with it, for convergence?

In Austria, Finland and Sweden, political parties, aware of public opposition to the alignment of their country, have refused the total abandonment of neutrality, although the majority of elites are in favor of entrance into NATO. Considerations of national interest add to this, making the current situation of non-alignment the most comfortable.

In France and the UK, the political situation embodied in public opinion is increasingly open to change and, at the same time, less conservative due to political change and elections.

In terms of social policy, we can assert that all European countries share an alteration of the family structure, due to the decrease and postponement of childbearing, the aging of the population, the rise in the divorce rate and the number of single parent families, as well as the rise in the rate of women's professional activity. Moreover, the job market has endured mutations demonstrated with particular acuity during the 1990s, with a significant rise in unemployment, affecting primarily women, and the growth in :flexibility of the labor market. These common demographic and employment evolutions can be considered as strong, shared incitements to support working parents by developing the sector dedicated to the conciliation of professional and family life.


The question of change in public policy increasingly preoccupies political science because of "given" the complex multilevel pressures emerging in the contexts of globalization, the end of the Cold War, and the European construction. How do these pressures interact with national policymaking and how do they appear in the policy process? Do countries adapt to the transformations that occur in their international environments and in what ways do these transformations initiate change?

This article attempts to respond to some of these questions by observing the evolution of three different policy sectors in selected European countries: the foreign and security policies of Austria, Finland and Sweden; the defense policies of France and of the United Kingdom (UK); the social policies directed at the family in France, the UK and Sweden. The geographic and sectorial choices inherent in this comparative analysis are not solely derived from personal research interests. Fundamentally, the areas under consideration are all emblematic of national sovereignty. Given their significant national anchorage, these sectors appear, at first glance, to be impervious to all external pressures to change and their evolution tends to go along with specific national trajectories (path dependency). They have all been the object of very specific approaches from one country to another, approaches that are entrenched in the traditions, the history and the culture specific to each state. Consequently, we normally discern, in these particular areas1 a large diversity of the systems in place in the European countries-not trends of convergence. The countries chosen for each case are normally presented in the literature as representative of the diversity of these models. Nevertheless, in analysing the changes undertaken in each of these sectors and countries in the last decade, we observe changes that indicate convergence. In other words, although traditionally marked by strong national specificities, each of these sectors displays, in the 1990s, what Kerr defines as a "tendency of societies to grow more alike, to develop similarities in structures, processes, and performances."1

What do these trends signify and how can they be interpreted? Why do policymakers in different national contexts make, at a given moment, similar commitments to reform their public policies? At a time when most comparative studies investigate the persisting diversity in the policy goals, instruments, styles and/ or outcomes of different countries, we focus on simultaneous trends of convergence. What pressures and processes drive political change to designate convergence of public policies?

In order to reveal the ways in which policymaking today is constrained by political and economic transformations at both the supranational and interstate levels, and to understand how these transformations may interact with choices made by national decision-makers, we first intend to highlight how recent changes observed in domains as diverse as foreign and security policies, defense policy and family policy can be interpreted as signs of convergence. Secondly, in a more causalist perspective, we envision several variables as possible explanations of convergence. Finally, we seek to understand convergence by observing the mechanisms through which it may be produced.

Explaining Convergence: Multilevel Pressures

Beyond the obvious differences that separate the policy fields considered here-differences that allow us to distance ourselves from the specificities linked to the sectors-the three cases present certain common characteristics leading to similar questions: the areas under consideration are all emblematic of national sovereignty, all have historically been the object of very specific approaches from one country to another, and, given their significant national anchorage, all appear seemingly impervious to external pressures to change.8 Under these conditions, in what ways can global, European, or domestic variables help to explain convergence?


In analyzing the evolutions of policy sectors that are all strongly embedded in traditions of national sovereignty and, as such, normally considered resistant to external pressures for change, our study brings to light policy transformations that square with and result from a dynamic of convergence in the cognitive and normative frameworks. Our quest in this article has been to interpret those particular developments.

If the cases considered here seem, at first glance, to have little in common, they are all necessarily affected by the shared context of an increasingly integrated environment. Throughout our study, we have been able to detect a multitude of challenges at the global, European as well as the domestic levels that may exert common pressures for convergence in several policy fields in different countries. However, we cannot find a sufficient explanation of convergence in these developments: in the absence of any direct means to act upon policies on the national level, the relation between global, European or domestic transformations and convergence of national policies is not obvious. Indeed, nothing deterministic obliges governments of different countries to adopt similar positions. This does not mean that challenges taking shape in the given multilevel context have no influence on national policymaking or exert no constraints on the decisions made by single countries. The role of multilevel changes is to be understood differently.

We assert that the impact of the multilevel pressures should be analyzed through the dynamics underlying the convergence, in the conditions that motivate countries to engage in processes of policy transfer. Rather than from an imposed evolution, the convergence trends here seem to result from processes occurring through voluntary interstate exchanges and adjustments. When looking to the concrete mechanisms through which public actions in different contexts can mutually influence each other, we establish that common global/European/ domestic challenges are almost always present.

Convergence thus stands out as an interactive process, which takes place at a cognitive level, without any specific or legal constraints, and helps orient the change of public policies in different countries in common directions. In our view, these dynamics are central to understanding the significance of changes undertaken in current public policies.


Global Factors: Pressure from International Mutations?

Several developments at the global level have enhanced the interest in convergence. Polemic as it may be, "The End of History" thesis proposed by Francis Fukuyama9 conveys a possible interpretation of the Cold War as a source, if not of the uniformity of societies, at least of the generalization of certain models.

For European states, the end of the East-West conflict signaled more room to maneuver in external relations. Thereafter, surrounded by countries that share outwardly the same norms (especially liberal democracy and market economy) and integrated into or on the road to integration into the Western sphere, via NATO and EU enlargement, the neutral countries approach diplomatic action differently than during the Cold War. They no longer manage their foreign policy as a function of membership in one block or another but according to different priorities.

Moreover, throughout Europe, the end of the Cold War cast doubt on the foundations of prior security and defense policies (territorial defense, nuclear deterrence, the risk of conventional interstate war, etc.). A relatively stable setting with a clearly identifiable threat gave way to a less predictable environment. The threat that weighed upon European countries took on a new form, leading to the reform of defense policies on both national levels and within military alliances. As a result, states-neutral or not, militarily strong or not-no longer view their defense policy as aimed essentially at self defense, but, instead, base it more often on the concept of cooperation in order to facilitate participation in military coalitions in crisis management operations.

Though a priori less obvious, the end of the Cold War may also have influenced the direction of social policies. As with analyses explaining the development of social policies after 1945 as a way to contain the communist threat, we could understand the entirety of policies seeking to reorient individuals toward the job market as a form of compromise, allowing for the development of liberal policies, including social policies.10 The fall of the communist model, in decreasing the perceived necessity of generous social policies, thereby constitutes an occasion to rethink the relationship between work, social protection and welfare in European countries which pushes toward convergence in this sector.

The current global context is also characterized by an increasing number of exchanges in all sectors of society and increasing interdependence.

Neutrality, usually understood as an instrument of national independence and a demonstration of state sovereignty, is no longer a relevant tool to assert a state's existence on the international scene, marked by the diminution of the significance of individual states' sovereignty.

What we commonly call the "Khaki Economy," otherwise known as the defense economy, has been similarly affected by the increasingly international competition that globalization creates. European arms industries are indeed faced with numerous common difficulties: the fall in the volume of exports, downsizing, budget cuts, etc. Challenged by strong American competition, Europe has sought to consolidate its own industry by constituting three leading industrial entities (BAE Systems, European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company/EADS and Thales). In the cases of Prance and the UK, naval yards and ground-based armament industries are additionally being reformed and reorganized.

In the social sector, the reform of the welfare state, under the pressure of the increasing competition at the global level, seems to lead to the realization of national public actions concerning family and gender issues that are more cost ­efficient, more adapted to a liberal environment and more directed at labor market participation. Decision-makers in different countries are driven to share the same conceptions and visions of welfare policy in Europe, promoted by the communications and the orientations coming from international organizations (notably the Organization for European Cooperation and Development-OECD).

EU: A Common Framework at the European Level?

Convergence has often been understood in the literature as going together with the Europeanization of public policy-the former being seen as a result of the latter.11 In this frame, the conduct of public policies by different EU member states, subject to the same European regulations, would tend to bear a strong resemblance to one another. Nevertheless, several studies have demonstrated that there is no obvious causal link between Europeanization and convergence.12 As claimed by C. Radaelli, "Europeanization is not convergence. [ ... ]Convergence is not Europeanization."13 Following this result, and although the states studied here are all members of the EU, we cannot automatically attribute the convergence observed to this same membership. Our study questions the manifestation of tendencies toward convergence in policy fields in which EU intervention is limited and relatively weak.

As such, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) was set up as a pillar of intergovernmental cooperation and its means of action depend essentially on the states: the task of defining the principles and the orientations of the CFSP and of deciding common strategies falls firstly on the European Council. Since unanimity or constructive abstention are used for decision-making, nothing is forced on member states. Furthermore, the secretary general of the Council of Ministers, responsible, along with the President of the Council, for monitoring the CFSP and coordinating the external policy of the EU, is named by the European Council unanimously and acts more often than not at its request.

Similarly, defense policy entails a method of intergovernmental governance in which the rule of unanimity hinders the implementation of common policies that are nonetheless put forth in the treaties of the European Community (EC). If the Maastricht Treaty explicitly articulates the goal of a common defense policy, and in the long term a common defense, we cannot speak of an autonomous European defense policy: the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) does not offer any supranational dimension. While the institutions established14 represent undeniable progress in the ESDP, they remain limited in scope, having only an advisory function and being devoid of any actual power. Military planning remains entirely a national prerogative, and nothing is compulsory for the states.

In social policy, the application of the principle of subsidiarity, leaving a limited space for the development of common social policies, strongly limits European integration. EU action with respect to the family consists essentially of non-obligatory, non-coercive and vague encouragements such as recommendations, resolutions, action programs or more general orientations, the national implementation of which depends entirely on the good will of national governments.

If it seems possible to identify conditions or variables on the global, domestic or communitarian levels that account for the likenesses that we have observed in the evolution of the national policies conducted by different European states, it is, on the other hand, more difficult to assert that there are unequivocal links between these explanatory factors and the observed reality. In the empirical cases followed here, the developments that have taken shape on the global, the community, or on the domestic level do not really appear as strong adaptational pressures that would lead national policies to increasingly resemble each other. No formal, legal or concrete constraints explain in what ways common international or interstate challenges produce convergence. No specific dimension can be distinguished as an isolated source of convergence having a direct causal effect.

To understand the relationships between change and convergence, it seems necessary to shift away from the causalist reasoning to consider more specifically the process by which convergence occurs.

Sophie Enos-Attali, Ph.D. Candidate in political science at Sciences-Po Paris/GERI is preparing a dissertation on foreign and security policies in the context of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, comparing three neutral countries (Austria; Finland and Sweden). Alexandra Jonsson, Ph.D. Candiate in political science at Sciences-Po/CEVIPOF and fellow of the CNAF, is preparing a dissertation on policies directed at the conciliation between professional and family life in France, the UK and Sweden. Elizabeth Sheppard, Ph.D. Candidate in political science at Sciences-Po Paris/GERI is preparing a dissertation on the europeanization of defence policies in France and the UK and convergence in military in the EU.