Social Europe at a crossroads
By promising a ‘social triple A’ the Juncker Commission has put social Europe high on the agenda. Its commitment formulated in this way should be considered as a reaction to growing criticism – and indeed resentment – in large parts of the population about the handling of the euro crisis. Promoting a more social Europe has become popular in many political circles. But what does that mean in practice? Is there a European agenda shared by all member states? Do they have the same concept of what it should be? Are they really prepared to hand over more competences to Brussels or come to a consensus among themselves? These questions were put to experts from many parts of the European Union. Their contributions formed the basis for this briefing paper, which will also be discussed during the event The Social Europe the Member States do not want? in Brussels on 11 October 2016.
In the past the European integration project could count on (relative) popular support and strong political legitimacy as it showed results benefitting the national welfare states that Europeans pride themselves on. There was and is a positive history of promoting social cohesion with generous EU funding. European free-market integration became – and was sold as – the means to build and pay for growing prosperity. Social policies were secondary to that and the member states kept control of their own social security systems. The basic idea was that through economic integration the EC countries would converge, which would also pay for more social cohesion within them. Despite past successes, this optimum was, however, never reached. On the contrary, since mid-2000 increased
inequality and economic imbalances have threatened the European project. It is no longer seen as the protector of the national welfare state against the globalisation of the economy. Growth has not been the overall solution.
Although unemployment figures in the EU have generally declined since 2013 and economic growth has picked up modestly, youth unemployment remains high, social exclusion is still widespread and income gaps between and within member states are widening. Many member states have not been able to build or sustain sufficient social protection. Other developments with regard to pension schemes, the Brexit and other factors are of influence as well.
Where does this lead us? It is obvious that the reactions are different in Portugal or the UK: in Lisbon they want more support from the EU; in Britain they wanted to protect themselves against certain parts of EU legislation. Some say that with Britain gone it will be easier to move forward with social Europe. That is to underestimate the divergent approaches to the issue and ignores the basic fact that the EU had only limited (and shared) competences. Some also complain that social Europe lacks visibility and that it is not sufficiently underpinned by concrete positive examples.