EU Forum

Social Europe

Social Europe: lifebuoy or fata morgana?

14 Nov 2017 - 11:00
Source: Public Domain Pictures

Some observers think there might be a unique window of opportunity for Social Europe. Now that the ‘national-populist tsunami’ after Trumps victory and Brexit more or less anticlimactically subsided and elections on the European continent were won by the political centre again, a new boost for Europe is the talk of the town. With the electoral victory of Emmanuel Macron, the re-election of Angela Merkel and the internal political turmoil Theresa May is facing in the UK, there appears to be sufficient momentum to move on with new initiatives for European cooperation and integration.

Social Europe belongs to one of the favourite topics. Just as Björn Hacker earlier wrote on this EU Forum: parties in France and Germany “outline a different approach to the EU, which would try to heal the wounds of the Eurocrisis by taking first steps towards a true European Social Model”.

Macron’s social goals……
And indeed, in his great Sorbonne speech on European reform President Macron set out some key social goals for Europe. To combat social dumping Macron wants to reform the Posted Workers Directive. “My second proposal is to develop true social convergence and gradually bring our social models closer together. (…) So in Europe, we need a revamped social model: not one stuck in the twentieth century, and not that of a catch-up economy. We need to set out the terms at European level, as this is the right scale for this battle. I would like to begin talks as early as November to define the common minimum European social standards, and to build that floor I would also like to build rules for convergence. We should establish a minimum wage that takes into account the economic realities of each country, while gradually moving towards convergence.”

…and those of the European Commission
Accordingly, the European Commission prepared next steps towards a European Pillar of Social Rights. On November 17, a Social Summit in Gothenburg is organised by both the European Commission and the Swedish Government, a Summit focusing on promoting Fair Jobs and Growth. “The Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth will gather heads of state or government, the social partners and other key players to work together on a more social Europe and to promote fair jobs and growth. Well-functioning and fair European labour markets, effective and sustainable social protection systems and the promotion of social dialogue at all levels will be at the heart of the summit agenda.

Is Social Europe really alive and kicking?
Given all these developments, one may assume that Social Europe is alive and kicking  But does it really represent a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities, or is Social Europe merely a fata morgana, a catchphrase for those who want to change the technocratic and austere neoliberal image of the European Project, an attempt to reconnect  European citizens with the European project after narrowly escaping a full-scale populist revolt?

For others Social Europe is more than just an elaborate PR project: it is the lifebuoy against the populist revolt, which, as many argue, is a revolt against the new inequalities of the global liberal order. Dani Rodrik, in his ‘Populism and the Economics of Globalization’, is arguing that populism is a “political backlash against the globalization shock”. He concludes: “The rise of populism forces a necessary reality check. Today the big challenge facing policy makers is to rebalance globalization so to maintain a reasonably open world economy while curbing its excesses.”

For many, including the European Trade Union Confederation, a European Social Pillar is key to addressing this rebalancing act: “Social Europe = the answer to globalisation. Social Europe should offer a framework for helping people to come to terms with change and its consequences.” Not so clear is what is meant by Social Europe: the sum of national welfare states? Social policy directives from the European Commission? A fundamental change of the neoliberal political economy of austerity and strict fiscal rules? One of the key issues with the term ‘Social Europe’ is that it is both a highly contested notion and a multipurpose concept. One could distinguish between a defensive, protectionist Social Europe and a more offensive, integrationist Social Europe.

Emmanuel Macron’s big slogan is ‘l’Europe qui protège’, which essentially calls for further European integration to protect the European people, both externally and internally. He specifically focuses on “le dumping social” (using cheap foreign labour to undercut local wages) and “le dumping fiscal” (exploiting low-tax countries to avoid paying higher taxes in other member states). As Mark Leonard is rightly pointing out: “This marks a substantial change. Over the last three decades the European project has been based on the idea that the way to eliminate conflict was to tear down walls and to build interdependence between countries. But today, interdependence is the source of anxiety and conflict as people worry about the financial instability of the euro, social dumping as a result of border-free travel, and terrorism. The next phase of European integration will not be about pulling down barriers, but about convincing those most affected by interdependence that they can feel safe again.”

Trust in fair politics and good governance are key preconditions to foster solidarity and support for welfare policies

Populist Zeitgeist not taken into consideration
What Social Europe means is in the eye of the beholder. For many it sounds extremely positive. Who could possibly argue against a ‘more social’ Europe? It alludes to a welfare paradise with equal conditions, social rights and minimum (income) levels across European boarders. However, no-one seems to know exactly what kind of solution ‘Social Europe’ is to which kind of existing problems. But there appears to be a lack of consideration of the populist Zeitgeist shaping contemporary political life: that is, growing distrust in the political establishment and increasing reciprocity to anti-European, nationalistic identity politics. How realistic is it to strengthen the European social pillar in times of Euroscepticism and political distrust, after just narrowly escaping a national-populist tsunami that threatened centrist parties all across Europe in recent elections?

Nobody predicted the EU would become as big and diverse as it is today, with economic divergence and huge welfare and governance discrepancies between the North and South, and the East and West. Now Brussels technocrats try to counter the negative effects of market integration with ‘Social Europe’. Something that could implicitly pave the way to a transfer union with European budgets, taxes and funds, all based on an assumed European spirit of solidarity that does not yet exist. Recent research has demonstrated again that mutual trust and solidarity among Member States – both necessary preconditions for any form of Social Europe - does not exist. Welfare-state solidarity is already under threat in traditional welfare states such as Sweden or the Netherlands, let alone on the European scale.

At the national scale first
Solidarity and social policy are fundamentally based on trust. On political trust, social trust, mutual trust. As Bo Rothstein has demonstrated for the Scandinavian welfare state, (reciprocal) trust in fair politics and good governance are key preconditions to foster solidarity and support for welfare policies. Solidarity does not exist in a vacuum. Policy makers don’t think enough about fostering solidarity on a European scale through combating corruption, distrust in political institutions and bad governance on the ground. If these issues are not addressed, the idea of Social Europe will remain nothing more than a catchphrase.

In these populist times, one has to restore social security, continuity and credibility first within the national welfare state, before jumping into the Great Unknown of a ‘Social Europe’. For too many, the EU is still the cause, not the solution, to their grievances.

René Cuperus is researcher at the Duitsland Instituut (Germany Institute) of the University of Amsterdam (DIA) and columnist for de Volkskrant.