The aim of this paper is not only to assess whether the European Employment Strategy (EES) has had an impact on national labour market reforms, but to also evaluate the effects of partisan politics on the EES and vice versa. After establishing three causal mechanisms through which the EES may have an effect on domestic reforms, this paper carefully traces the institutional evolution of activation and childcare policy in Austria and Ireland. It is argued that the EES has been effective in amplifying and accelerating the introduction of early interventions and case management in Austria, while even triggering such developments in Ireland. In both cases, partisan actors were willing to embrace, if not strategically utilize, the EES to issue and legitimize such changes. At early stages, money offered through the European Social Fund was also critical in initiating such programmatic changes. The introduction of public childcare, in turn, was opposed by conservative politicians in both countries throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Only after the launch of the Barcelona summit, which established hard targets for childcare places, governments gradually began to seek a politically viable compromise, acceptable to conservative political actors. Such a compromise was built on simultaneously expanding public childcare places and universal child benefits. While the former satisfies progressive actors and voters, the latter allows mothers to stay at home (at least part of the time) and thus strengthens traditional family values. This compromise became possible only due to the EES and associated targets, which increased political awareness, offered a benchmark, empowered societal actors, and – perhaps most importantly – softened the categorical resistance of conservative politicians to the provision of public childcare.