ArticlePDF Available

BOOK REVIEW: Social failures of EU enlargement: a case of workers voting with their feet, by Guglielmo Meardi, London, New York, Routledge, 2011, 230 pp., £110 (hardcover), ISBN 9780415806794, £39.99 (paperback), ISBN 9781138203013

Authors:

Abstract

Between 2004 and 2007 most post-socialist European countries joined the European Union, while further plans for accession or partnership were laid out for what was left of former-Yugoslavia and the southwestern fringes of the former Soviet Union. For Western Europe, this was the crowning of an expansion process that promised to bring peace and stability to the continent. For accession countries, it marked the end of a lengthy and painful process of social and economic restructuring, patiently undertaken with the expectation that market and democratic institutions would bring prosperity. Only a few years on and the picture was altogether different, the aftershocks of the 2008 economic crisis having exposed growing social and economic disparities between old and new Europe matched only by the political divide marked by CEE countries’ populist, xenophobic and openly authoritarian tendencies. Published in the same year that the EU was awarded its Nobel Prize, the aptly named “Social Failures of EU Enlargement” by Guglielmo Meardi provided, with great foresight, a much less triumphalistic account of one aspect of post-socialist transition.
Olga Cretu, Middlesex University Business School
O.Cretu@mdx.ac.uk
Dr Claudio Morrison, Middlesex University Business School
C.Morrison@mdx.ac.uk
Book Review
Social Failures of EU Enlargement: A Case of Workers Voting with their Feet, by
Guglielmo Meardi. Routledge, London, New York, 2012.
Between 2004 and 2007 most post-socialist European countries joined the European
Union, while further plans for accession or partnership were laid out for what was left
of former-Yugoslavia and the southwestern fringes of the former Soviet Union. For
Western Europe this was the crowning of an expansion process that promised to bring
peace and stability to the continent. For accession countries, it marked the end of a
lengthy and painful process of social and economic restructuring, patiently undertaken
with the expectation that market and democratic institutions would bring prosperity.
Only a few years on and the picture was altogether different, the aftershocks of the
2008 economic crisis having exposed growing social and economic disparities
between old and new Europe matched only by the political divide marked by CEE
countries’ populist, xenophobic and openly authoritarian tendencies. Published in the
same year that the EU was awarded its Nobel Prize, the aptly named “Failures of EU
Enlargement’ by Guglielmo Meardi provided, with great foresight, a much less
triumphalistic account of one aspect of post-socialist transition.
The book deals with employment and industrial relations institutions in post-accession
CEE and intends to expose the effects of the enlargement on social standards in the
expanded EU. Meardi asks whether the new EU member states represent a ‘Trojan
horse’ for the Americanisation of social relations in Europe, meaning a regime based
on minimal welfare, strong inequalities and uneven development. To stay with the
metaphor, he seems to suggest that this is the case, to a large degree, because western
institutions and employers played a considerable part in building and pulling in the
horse. His main argument is that East and West, starting from indisputably different
positions in social standards, have continued to diverge essentially because the EU has
been unwilling and unable to maintain its ‘implicit promise’ to activate the transfer of
social protection and welfare mechanisms to the East. Multinational companies have
also disappointed by failing to transfer participation and employee representation
practices to their eastern branches. Free from legal constraints, political pressure and
strong industrial action they have taken full advantage of labour weakness. The
outcome is workers’ dissatisfaction that, interpreted through the prism of Hirschman’s
voice/exit dichotomy, has translated into various forms of exit including, primarily,
large scale migration, misbehaviour at work and support for populist politics.
The book develops its argument in three sections. The first deals with the failure of
transfer mechanisms, namely the ‘hard’ regulatory mechanism known as the social
‘acquis communautaire’, ‘soft’ tripartite dialogue (between state, unions and
employers) and foreign direct investments by multinationals. The second part is
devoted to various forms of exit expressing workers’ dissatisfaction with conditions
and opportunities in their home country. Meardi observes that mobility has taken the
form of circular migration but, despite mobility rights, employers take full advantage
of the weak position of CEE migrants in western labour markets to impose maximum
flexibility and precarity. This notwithstanding, he recognises that mobility is no
simple prerogative of capital but also reflects worker’s resistance. Other forms of
workers’ agency such as turnover and organisational misbehaviour are considered in
the following section. On the last, Meardi stretches beyond IR narrow disciplinary
confines to look at political behaviour. He observes that without an organised Left to
promote workers’ demands they express discontent through populism or abstention.
The latter, of course, has only a limited political impact, unlike the recent rise of
populism in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. The final chapter discusses the potential
for union renewal, a possible return to voice, including engagement with migrants,
attempts at cross-border collaborations and the operation of European Work Councils.
Albeit promising and at times successful, none of these initiatives seems to gain
momentum; the effectiveness of national divisions hampers transnational co-
operation.
There is much to be recommended in Meardi’s book. Methodologically, it relies on a
successful stream of case study research.
Meardi’s view on post-socialist Europe is a welcome change from triumphalistic
celebrations of shock therapy and neoliberal models as well as from the constant
focus on communist legacies routinely blamed for later socio-economic disasters. He
recognises that labour degradation is a crucial problem with far-reaching
consequences, that western ‘betrayal’ has much to do with it and consequently that
CEE socio-economic problems are not a localised issue. In its wake, scholarship on
the informal economy and migration has confirmed the argument, pointing to what
some have referred to as the “seepage” of deteriorated employment conditions, as
Eastern European labour migrants arrive in the West. Most importantly the book
brings the social question and its missing subject, the worker, back to the centre of
debates on EU politics, economic restructuring and transition.
Yet, this work is not been impermeable to criticism. Despite Meardi’s appreciation for
Burawoy’s case study method and his ‘view from below’, much of his research is
admittedly orthodox in its approach, testing sets of hypotheses rather than
reconstructing social processes. In addition, questions have been raised about who
should be blamed for enlargement’s social failures; whether it is really appropriate to
apply the western European social model -to eastern transition and if the latter ever
existed as a formalised set of EU institutions. These remarks point to deeper
problems. For all its attention to workers and its aspiration to a dynamic analysis, the
book has more to do with institutional dynamics than social processes, institutions
rather than social agency. Institutionalism applied to industrial relations tends to be
silent about conflict and the social structures that substantiate or constrain labour
rights and its organisations. So it is not that the EU social model was too good for the
East or simply poorly codified, rather that it had already been hollowed out, an
institutional shell disconnected from the reality of workers’ lives and practices of
resistance. From this point of view, the greatest achievement of Meardi’s book lies in
the author’s ability to stretch beyond the objective constraints of his discipline to
capture key aspects of European post-socialist transformation.
... Our primary purpose is to employ institutional theory to question notions of the 'Americanization' of employment relations (Cretu & Morrison, 2017;Meardi, 2013, p. 69) in Slovenia, Slovakia, and Croatia by assessing their proximity to Austria. Prior to Communism, these three post-socialist countries shared an institutional past with Austria, whose Works Council (WC) legislation has been a reference point for each of them, post socialism (Jevtic, 2012). ...
... Industrial relations scholars frequently argue along 'Americanization' lines. Cretu and Morrison (2017) accept Meardi's 'Americanization' hypothesis. Pulignano and Arrowsmith (2013, p. 6) assert that in the EU's new member states, WCs are 'not important industrial relations actors' . ...
... Overall, our findings cast a rather more positive light on 'social dialogue' at workplace level in post-socialist countries than the majority critical/skeptical strand within industrial relations literature (Cretu & Morrison, 2017;Eurofound, 2009;Meardi, 2012;Pulignano & Arrowsmith, 2013). A sizeable segment of managements, particularly those centred on large-scale manufacturing, is clearly not entirely hostile to adopting the WC as a workplace institution. ...
Article
Full-text available
We question notions of the ‘Americanization’ of employment relations in Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia. First, we examine the roles of unions, the use of US strategic approach to Human Resource Management (SHRM), and management perceptions of their organisations' innovativeness in the establishment of Works Council (WCs). Second, we employ the same variables in relation to the use of WCs for downward communication in these countries in comparison with what Amable (2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/019926113X.001.0001) terms the Continental European Coordinated Market Economy (CECME) of Austria, adding the CECMEs Germany and Norway as control variables. Union influence drives the adoption of WCs and their use for management downward communication. Hence, on our measures the three countries share features of the CECME category and have not been ‘Americanized’.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.