The open method of coordination (OMC) is an increasingly important process of governance within the European Union whereby Member States voluntarily share guidelines and codes of practice. It is based on the idea that cooperation on social issues where subsidiarity applies (i.e. Member States are free to take their own decisions within broad policy agreements) must depend upon cooperation and agreement rather than on the community method of enforceable laws and regulations. The OMC depends on voluntary agreement between Member States to set policy goals, guidelines and indicators, benchmarking and to share best practice, it relies on a peer pressure.
The OMC developed in the 1990s but was only officially endorsed at the Lisbon Council (2001) in relation to social policy. The Lisbon Council coined the term and extended its application to several other policy areas, most notably health and social protection, education and training. Since the Göteborg European Council (2001), it had also been applied in the area of immigration and asylum – sector not directly related to the Lisbon process.
Generally, the OMC develops in stages. First, the Council of Ministers agrees on broad policy goals and guidelines. Member states then translate these guidelines into national and regional policies. Thirdly, specific benchmarks and indicators of best practice are agreed. Finally, actions and results are monitored and evaluated. However, the OMC differs significantly between the policy areas to which it is applied: there may be shorter or longer reporting periods, guidelines may be set at EU or Member State level and enforcement mechanisms may be harder or softer.
The OMC is more intergovernmental in nature than the traditional means in EU policy-making, the so-called community method. Because it is a decentralised approach through which agreed policies are largely implemented by the Member States and supervised by the Council of European Union, the involvement of the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice is very much weaker. However, the OMC also provides the possible involvement of civil society organizations through open consultations and dialogue. And these civil society actors may also be engaged in monitoring actions and results.
The OMC, as defined by the Lisbon European Council, thus involves:
- fixing guidelines with specific timetables for achieving the goals which they set in the short, medium and long terms
- establishing, where appropriate, quantitative and qualitative indicators and benchmarks, tailored to the needs of the different Member States and sectors as means of comparing best practice
- translating these European guidelines into national and regional policies by setting specific targets and adopting measures, taking into account national and regional differences
- periodic monitoring, evaluation and peer review organized as mutual learning processes, possibly involving academic business and civil society organizations.