In the eyes of Greeks the meaning of Social Europe has changed over time, spanning the range from funds to promote social cohesion to externally enforced welfare state reforms in an austerity context. To the extent Greeks became familiar with Social Europe, they never took it to heart but would admit that they have periodically benefited from Social Europe’s tangible outlays, such as the European Structural Funds. Nowadays the Greek experience of a protracted economic crisis and a sudden refugee crisis can contribute towards rethinking Social Europe.
Welcome and unwelcome aspects of Social Europe
In pre-crisis Greece, Social Europe used to mean a welcome invitation to make Greece’s living standards converge with those of the rest of the EU. It also meant a less welcome push to introduce into Greece labour market and pension reforms, which would alter a patronage-based divide between insiders and outsiders.
European social policies, including active labor market policies and flexicurity, were alien in Greek society. Social Europe was not received well in a society in which many thought that they were entitled to a stable job and welfare benefits, dispensed by the state, by virtue of belonging to a group treated differently from other groups.
Examples of insider groups included civil servants, bank employees, journalists and the liberal professions. The majority of the rest were outsiders. An insider-outsider division has been the result of a particular historical legacy of state-society relations.
Social equity Greek style
Greeks hold complicated views on social equity. On the one hand they entertain egalitarian ideas as, in contrast to other European societies, there has never been an influential landed aristocracy in the Greece, while heavy industrialization was mostly absent from the country’s path to development.
On the other hand, Greeks often show more social solidarity with the narrow occupational group to which they belong rather than with the weaker social strata in general. While most Greeks reject any kind of social privilege, they simultaneously adhere to tailor-made, occupation-based privileges, such as rights to early retirement available to selected groups or preferential access to public sector jobs through political party patronage.
Social Europe after the crisis: from entitlement to austerity
After the crisis struck, the EU-imposed fiscal consolidation of the Greek economy led to the expansion of poverty, soaring unemployment and a deeper insider-outsider division between Greeks who have been relatively untouched by the crisis and their co-patriots who have been economically destroyed by it.
The economic crisis was very quickly transformed into a social crisis. Social Europe was flushed out of Greece along with the bathwater of relatively generous pensions, incommensurate to past insurance contributions, and wages standing higher than productivity levels.
Meanwhile, successive Greek governments fought to support their political clienteles by preventing substantive reforms in the aforementioned highly discriminatory welfare system, which pits insiders against outsiders. This is a fight that continues to this day. Thus, in crisis-ridden Greece, Social Europe has been associated, not so much with the rationalization of the welfare state, as with deep social spending cuts.
Rethinking Social Europe
However, as soon as the refugee crisis broke out in 2015 and hundreds of thousands of desperate people landed on Greek islands, Greeks rushed to offer help. Noticing the glaring absence of central state authorities, Greeks started pouring clothes, shoes, food and medicines on to incoming waves of refugees. Suddenly for Greeks, who during the crisis had taken Social Europe to mean indiscriminate austerity measures, being a European now meant sharing one’s own reduced resources with non-Europeans emerging from the sea.
Seeing a real humanitarian crisis from close by, Greeks have started putting Greek and European politics in perspective. In 2015 populist promises that other Europeans would rally around an anti-austerity Greek and South European vision to reshape Social Europe have evaporated. Pre-electoral claims that all that was necessary for Greeks to enjoy pre-crisis living conditions was to banish the EU-imposed austerity packages have contributed to the government turnover of 2015, but have soon proven futile. Almost every Greek has realized that a patronage-based system of welfare is normatively indefensible and financially unsustainable.
Distrust and dissatisfaction with the EU
But the fact that unfettered and one-size-fits-all austerity can rapidly lead an once relatively prosperous EU Member-State, such as Greece, to acute social crisis, has indicated how fragile Social Europe has become as well.
On this issue, the governing coalition of Syriza party with the right-wing Independent Greeks party, which has been in power since January 2015, believes that in the past Social Europe spelled the undermining, rather than the protection, of workers’ rights, for example, through introducing unacceptable flexibility in labour relations.
Finally, the coalition of Syriza would like to see more flexibility in the Stability and Growth Pact’s rules and the abandonment of Fiscal Compact, so as to allow national governments in Member States to follow expansionist economic policies. Simultaneously the radical left/right coalition distrusts the strengthening of decision-making powers of EU’core, including a stronger EU budget. Yet Syriza does call for an EU-wide increase in public investment.
Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos is associate professor politieke wetenschappen op de Afdeling Politieke Wetenschappen en Openbaar Bestuur van de Universiteit van Athene en Senior Research Fellow bij de denktank ELIAMEP