After the crisis started in 2008, the interest for the concept of “Social Europe” has risen anew but, until now, it has represented solely a position of dissent from official austerity policies put into effect by the European Union. How has the “Social Europe” idea contributed to develop social policies within the EU during the last decades?
In the debate over the European integration process, the idea of “Social Europe” was present already in the late 1970s and, since that time, has played an important role in pursuing the European Social Model (ESM)[Ballarín Cereza].One of the main achievement accomplished by the supporters of this position has been the acknowledgment that promotion of employment and social protection should be objectives of the European Union (EU) clearly defined in the Treaties. This happened in 1997, when the United Kingdom removed its veto on the so-called “Social Chapter” of the Amsterdam Treaty, thus allowing the insertion of the Title IX on employment and the amendment of Title X on social policies and youth.
Nevertheless, if today we look at the effective results of policies inspired by the idea of “Social Europe”, we should conclude that the story of the “Social Europe” model is the story of a failure. Indeed, the effective development of the ESM has been stuck in a dilemma between the necessity to create European social programs, harmonising different social-protection systems, and the impossibility to find an agreement respectful of the diversity of national social systems [Scharpf].
The turning point after this period of incertitude arrived in 2000 with the establishment of the “open method of coordination” . In so doing, Member States and the EU found a compromise over their competences, such as employment, education and social protection. Through the OMC, the European Union devised an instrument that allowed a certain freedom of intervention to Member States, without granting them a complete autonomy. As a result of this political phase, also the European Employment Strategy was revised after the Lisbon Council of 2000, accepting the assumption that a better competitiveness of the European Single Market would have led to an higher social cohesion and more favourable conditions of employment.
At the moment, the claim for a social dimension of the European Union is still strong – and the consequences of the recent financial downturn have generated, in reaction, a renewed interest for the European Social Model. Moreover, during the last three decades, despite long periods of economic growth in many Member States, socio-economic inequalities in the European Union have risen. This is the reason why the new Europe 2020 Strategy has set the target of 75% employment rate among 20-64 year-olds and national reforms to boost growth. Employment, in fact, is the most effectual device to face increasing inequalities and to guarantee protection from social exclusion and poverty.
However, the project of a “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”, as theorised in the Europe 2020 Strategy, seems to have still a neoliberal approach to social protection [Scharpf].In this perspective, European and national policies should only facilitate the self-adjusting action of the market. On the other hand, the project of a European Social Model – un espace social européen, using J. Delors’ expression – acts as a counterbalance to this idea of European Single Market. Following its leading principle, the EU should provide a set of social policies in order to create a common European model. In this way, the EU would strengthen its own social dimension, pushing the European integration process forward. Nevertheless, this step is still far from being realised and the harmonisation of different national social models, nowadays, appears unlikely.
For further information:
B. Amable, “«Europe 2020»: une stratégie néolibérale plus forte”, Libération, 22th february 2011.
L. Ballarín Cereza, A. Crespy, M. Esteve Del Valle, M. McTernan, Reinventing a social democratic Europe: What can we learn from the weakness of ‘Social Europe’?, FEPS Young Academics Netork, 1 march 2013.
F. W. Scharpf, The European Social Model: Coping with the challenges of diversity, MPIfG working paper, No. 02/8, 2002.
B. Van Apeldoorn, “The contradictions of embedded neoliberalism and Europe’s multilevel legitimacy crisis: the European project and its limits”, in B. Van Apeldoorn, J. Drahokoupil and L. Horn (eds.), Contradictions and Limits of Neoliberal European Governance, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009.
Leonardo Ebner is currently studying at the College of Europe (Natolin Campus). Prior to that, he graduated in philosophy and political theory. His research interests include social inequalities and distributive justice.