EU Forum

Social Europe

'Social Europe' isn’t that social, and undermines EU support

02 May 2016 - 11:43
Source: Photo: René Cuperus

What is ‘Social Europe’? The concept suggests an utopia of an European welfare paradise with equal conditions, social rights and minimum (income) levels for all EU-citizens. Wonderful! Who would disagree? However, we need to fundamentally analyse what kind of solution ‘Social Europe’ actually is to which kind of existing problems.

Social Europe sounds better to ‘poor’ countries than to ‘rich’ countries
Nobody had predicted the EU would become so big and diverse as today, with  huge welfare discrepancies between north and south, east and west. Now ‘Europeans’ and Brussels technocrats try to mediate the negative effects of market integration with ‘Social Europe’,potentially implying a transfer union with European budgets, taxes and funds that is based on an assumed European solidarity that does not yet exist in that way.

European solidarity is in fact not social
What is actually the root cause of the existing welfare differences? Not market integration per se, and matters are not that economically one-sided that the north needs to help the south: it is the dysfunction of societies in the south and east with their political corrupt class that have proven to be incapable to set up a decent and fair economy and functioning institutions. A recent report of Bruegel states that the EU’s budget could be twice as large if all member states would be as less corrupt as Denmark. Mind you!

Solidarity and social policy is fundamentally based on trust. On political trust, social trust, mutual trust. Policy makers think too lightly about solidarity on an European scale when corruption and taxation issues are still present in many countries. Solidarity does not exist in a vacuum. ‘Social Europe’ now, implies solidarity in a vacuum with the required trust completely missing. Even worse: trust within national democracies and welfare states is already in crisis. Key words: the revolt of populism against the establishment.

What is social about asking the working poor or ‘Harz IV-claimants’ in rich Germany to send their tax money to the rich elite in poor Greece? This is how resentment, discontent and distrust in societies is produced, how the support for the European cooperation will be undermined in the long run.

Social convergence can only follow economic convergence
Even if social convergence is (economically) desirable, it can only follow economic convergence. Without jobs and competitiveness one cannot put in place a durable social system. Problematic is that the Eurozone presents the opposite: economic divergence. True, partly this is due to the perverse relations between North (credit) and South (debit) countries. However, equally so because economies like the Greek one are simply not competitive enough to operate in the Eurozone.

‘Social Europe’ with minimum standards and harmonisation of social policy can only function between countries with more or less the same level of welfare, such as a mini-Schengen of the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany. It becomes very difficult, and it undermines solidarity, when one seeks it between countries with totally different welfare systems and political and social cultures.

There is – unfortunately -, no conceptual ‘Social Europe’ possible that could fit both Bulgaria and Sweden in the same model. Unless you downgrade Sweden to Bulgarian norms: the minimum wage in Bulgaria simply can’t be the same as in Sweden. Do not forget that research has demonstrated that the economic and social differences within the EU are much bigger than in the US, say between California and Michigan.

For many, the EU is the problem, not a solution
In the eyes of European policy makers ‘Social Europe’ is a way to counter the negative effects of market integration, yet for Eurosceptic citizens it is a horrifying concept. Victims of EU market integration have already completely lost trust and are only able to perceive the EU as the problem, not the solution.

Building a social welfare state in Bulgaria is desirable. But it has to come from Bulgarian politicians. It cannot be ‘colonially’ implemented from Brussels via the European Semester. Scoreboards and social indicators are mere rhetoric. And binding interference from Brussels that ignores national complexities can only mean a backlash, resulting in more national ‘’welfare populism.‘’

Fundamental discussions are needed
A fundamental discussion on the existing European macro-economic policy (which aggravated situations in the crisis stricken countries) is needed before talking about any new European social policy. The best ‘Social Europa’ is a Europe with less austerity politics. With more respect for the real economy, to the detriment of the neoliberal financialisation of economic relations.

The extremely low levels of trust by EU citizens, makes that ‘’Brussels’’ can afford very little new policy experiments. Trust has to be regained at the national level first. Trust between the academic establishment and non-academics. Otherwise, the pan-European revolt of populism will endanger the European Project lethally. In one phrase: the EU must rescue the national welfare democracies. Not the other way around.

René Cuperus is Director for International Relations and Senior Research Fellow at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, think tank of the Dutch Labour Party/PvdA.