img1 img2
img3 img4

The Rise and Fall of the ‘European Social Model’

Francine Mestrum, Global Social Justice

‘We want a social and democratic Europe’, ‘The ‘European social model’ has to be preserved’: it is not too difficult to fill some pages with demands for social policies and confirmations of European leaders that they will deliver. But how is this ‘social Europe’ faring? Where do we come from and where are we heading to? In this contribution I will give a short history of thinking on social policies since the inception of and in the European Community and the European Union. I will show how the social paradigm has changed and how, in 2012, it seems we are heading for a total breakdown of the old model.

The European social model

The first question we have to look at is whether there exists such a thing as a ‘European social model’ in the European Union? Western European countries have developed welfare states from the end of the 19th century till after the Second World War. But these welfare states do not follow a single model, nor have they been introduced in the countries of Central Europe after the fall of socialist regimes. Huge differences exist between the Nordic welfare states and the Mediterranean ‘models’ as well as with some neoliberally inspired social policies of Central Europe[1].

However, in spite of all differences in content, funding and coverage, there are also some common characteristics which lead to a specific relationship between state, markets and society:

- Most welfare states which were developed in Western Europe after the Second World War are based on a principle of social citizenship which has been theorized by T.H. Marhsall[2]. Citizenship is based on equality and nationality. According to T.H. Marshall, at the end of the 19th century, economic inequality is progressively being seen as something inacceptable and contrary to the equality of civil and political citizenship. Economic and social rights are introduced in order to give meaning to the other dimensions of citizenship. The equality of social citizenship is not an income equality but it stresses the ‘basic human equality’ associated with the concept of full membership of a society, not inconsistent with inequalities of the social class system. Social citizenship gives the right to a modicum of social welfare, to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society. This principle of equality is also present in all conceptions of human rights.

- A protection against the market: according to Polanyi[3] markets destroy societies and therefore people have to be protected against the negative consequences of market liberalization and fluctuation. This means markets should not be allowed to decide on the survival or the destitution of individuals. People therefore need affordable health care and education, allowances in case of unemployment and other public services. This protection does not necessarily exclude markets, but it will stop them from making victims. Opportunities should not be proportionate to the market value of the claimant.

- In order to make this second principle concrete, some goods will have to be de-commodified and be substracted from market mechanisms. This de-commodification  gives meaning to the equality of status and makes economic inequalities politically irrelevant. It is not income levels which decide on the access to basic services or to political rights, but the rights of citizenship.

- All welfare states in Western Europe are based on a principle of organic solidarity[4], this is based on insurance principles plus redistribution by way of taxes and/or contributions of workers. This makes possible universal systems with an ‘anonymous’ solidarity of people without direct community bonds but enlarged to the whole of a national society.

These principles are different from the United States system, which is based on needs, and is also different from what existed in socialist countries where markets were eliminated. In Western Europe, in line with Keynesian principles, the economy and society stood in a positive interaction. It is this element which was very successful with workers as well as with employers, both all too happy with the purchase power thus created. It is also this model which was meant to be introduced in developing countries after the decolonization process of the 1960s.

To-day, most of the existing welfare states are clearly outdated because of the fundamental changes in the economy, in societies and in the world at large. Women are now massively present on the labour market, nuclear families with one breadwinner are slowly disappearing, migration has soared, the informal economy with a ‘precariat’ is growing, whereas more and more very wealthy people do not need and do not want to contribute anymore to the citizenship model. However, what will have to be examined is whether the changes in social policies brought about in the past two decades, nationally and at the European level, respect the basic principles of the old welfare states or whether they introduce a new social paradigm.

The first steps

We are convinced that Europe can be an opportunity for workers … please continue with the unification process and we will follow you”. These words come from German trade unions talking to Jean Monnet who earlier said: “No, I did not integrate any representatives from employers in my action committee for the United States of Europe. At any rate, they are against”[5].  These were the power relations in the 1950s and they should help all those who think the European Community is an exclusive child of capitalism to re-think their basic assumptions. As in mythology, Europe has indeed many different fathers.

Clearly, the European Community was an economic undertaking. The assumption was that economic growth would be a consequence of the elimination of borders which would lead to social progress[6]. And in the long term, both would make possible a political union. From the beginning, it was a policy of small steps, a progressive cooperation which would make regression impossible.

The Treaty of Rome was ambiguous in social matters. It had a chapter on ‘Social Policy’ for workers, speaking of the promotion of employment and the improvement of living and working conditions, ‘so as to make possible their harmonization while their improvement is being maintained’. Such development ‘will ensue not only from the functioning of the common market which will favour the harmonization of social systems, but also from the procedures provided for in this Treaty …[7].

These two conceptions, the consequences of the market on the one hand, and the legal procedures on the other hand, can explain the difficult progress in social matters over more than 50 years.

The European Community got some competences to work on social progress for workers, but all major social matters remained in the hands of national governments.

Nevertheless, in these first years of European integration, some important achievements were made, such as equality of men and women, social security for migrant workers, the preservation of rights when companies are transferred, etc. The European Social Fund was able to help with the reconversion of workers from the declining coal sector.

The first changes

The economic crisis of the 1970s caused huge unemployment and for the first time, governments were concerned about the financial sustainability of their welfare states. The European Commission, who had been pleading for more social competences during all those years, began to stress the importance of keeping health care affordable and of avoiding negative consequences on employment[8].

In 1982 and 1986 the Commission published two memoranda on social security wishing to discuss its funding, the expected ageing of the population and the exclusion of more and more people. It starts to play with the idea of a partial privatization of pensions[9].

The Single Act of 1987 was meant to find solutions for these problems.  It would allow for completing the stalled internal market and extending the possibilities for working on social matters. Not only does the text refer to the European Social Charter[10], it also makes qualified majority voting possible for all legislation on the harmonization of rules. For social matters, the improvement of working conditions (health and safety), can be voted by qualified majority, whereas a new article is introduced to promote the social dialogue at the European level[11]. Both points are once again the result of difficult compromises, though they clearly mark progress and open the door for more social legislation, as well as for fiscal concerns and early privatizations.

The same goes for the changes made to the structural funds and the new title of ‘Social and Economic Cohesion’ claiming to reduce the gap between poor and richer regions.

The internal market

The efforts to complete the internal market were indeed useful for also completing the social dimension of the European Union. Commission President Jacques Delors repeated time and again that economic and social progress necessarily had to go hand in hand. In order to avoid a downwards harmonization he tried to introduce social basic rights in a social charter. In the European Parliament members asked for a harmonization of social security systems. The European trade unions asked for a ‘social floor’ with the major ILO conventions and the social Charter of the Council of Europe. And ‘since there was no job for all’ the ILO promoted the introduction of a guaranteed minimum income[12].

However, the European Council did not follow them. The ‘Iron Lady’ in the United Kingdom blocked every discussion on social matters since ‘new jobs cannot be created with new rules’[13]. Employers also strongly opposed social Europe and declared it would be a ‘serious error’[14]. Delors lost, not only on his social charter, but also on his economic dimension of the monetary union. To-day, twenty years later, we see the consequences of this flawed Union.

Nevertheless, in 1989, a social charter with the rights of workers was adopted. Due to Thatcher’s opposition, it was nothing more than a ‘solemn declaration’ and it was not enforceable. But it did speak of ‘fairly remunerated employment’, ‘improvement of living and working conditions’, ‘a right to adequate social protection’ and ‘an adequate level of social security’, the ‘right to association’, ‘collective agreements’ and ‘the right to strike[15]. Comparing this text to the Charter of fundamental rights which was added to the Treaty of Lisbon in 2004, the difference is compelling. Nevertheless, trade unions were very disappointed about the non enforceability of the charter, and the fact it only speaks of workers’ rights, not social rights in general.

With the Treaty of Maastricht, this social charter became a ‘Protocol’ (without the United Kingdom). It was decided that all matters concerning health and safety of workers could be decided by qualified majority voting, whereas social security remained subject to unanimity votes. The mechanism for the social dialogue was improved, one of the demands of Commission president Delors.

The European Commission published an action programme with 47 measures in order to implement the charter and guarantee the equal treatment of workers, combating social exclusion, vocational training, the posting of workers, information and consultation, and social protection[16].

Before leaving the Commission Delors tried to promote a new European social pact and a development model with a focus on public goods. He stated that growth was no longer sufficient to guarantee full employment. Unemployment was indeed very high beginning of the 1990s, reaching 10 % in January 1993[17].

But Maastricht had shown that Thatcher was far from alone in her new philosophy. The introduction of the Euro forced all member states to respect fiscal rules and debt limits, the so-called ‘convergence criteria’ that had to be achieved in order to have access to the new single currency. Calls for an ‘Economic security council’ or a ‘social convergence’ were hardly heard[18]. A Commission white paper on Growth, Competitiveness and Employment received only a halfhearted response in the Council.

In 1991 the European Commission published two recommendations which were adopted by the Council, one on the convergence of objectives and policies of social protection, and one on common criteria concerning sufficient resources and social assistance in social protection systems[19]. The Commission notes that ‘at this moment’ social protection systems cannot be harmonised. But it also notes that they have a direct impact on the internal market and that divergences should be avoided as much as possible. ‘Social devaluations should not substitute the monetary devaluations’. A progressive approximation is therefore desirable. The objective of social protection, according to the Commission in 1991, is guaranteeing a minimum income, access to health care, social and economic integration and assistance in case of unemployment. It recommends the member states to introduce systems of a guaranteed minimum income and to provide social protection to all persons with insufficient resources. The Council confirms and demands ‘to recognize the basic right of a person to sufficient resources and social assistance, to live in a manner compatible with human dignity …’. It recommends the Member States ‘to fix the amount of resources considered sufficient to cover essential needs with regard to respect for human dignity and … to guarantee these resources and benefits within the framework of social protection arrangements’.

In 2012, these recommendations remain to be implemented.

In 1993 the European Court of Justice also questioned the legality of a series of Community programmes whose legal basis was in dispute. A first Poverty Action Plan had been introduced at the end of the 1970s. But the ‘Poverty3’ programme was held up in the Council by Germany, for reasons of subsidiarity[20]. The Council of Justice confirmed.

The European social model is threatened” said Jacques Delors[21]. There was not to be any harmonization of social security, while at the same time poverty policies were blocked.


The Treaty of Amsterdam of 1999 and the Treaty of Nice of 2003 have introduced the fight against social exclusion in the competences of the European Union and the integration of people excluded from the labour market amonst the topics which can be decided on with qualified majority votes[22]. Employment policies have become a matter of ‘common interest[23]. The Treaty of Nice adds the ‘modernisation of social protection’[24].

It should be stressed that poverty reduction is not referred to in any European Treaty. However, the ‘Lisbon strategy’, a policy document adopted in 2000 and aiming to make ‘the European Union the most competitive and dynamic knowledge economy in the world’ does speak in its § 32 of the fact that it is inacceptable that so many people continue to live below the poverty line as victims of social exclusion. Measures should be taken, so it is said, to take ‘decisive actions in order to eradicate poverty’[25]. Following the Treaty of Nice is also adopted a ‘Social Agenda’ which mentions the promotion of employment, the modernization of social protection and the fight against poverty and social exclusion as its priorities[26].

But no new legislation is adopted. Poverty reduction is debated within the context of an ‘Open method of coordination’, a coordination process of the Member States leading to ‘soft law’ but no binding measures. The method has not led to any tangible results, except at the level of measurements and indicators.

In 2000 a Charter of Fundamental Rights had been adopted but was not integrated into the Treaty of Nice. Neither could it be integrated into the (failed) Constitutional Treaty. It is very modest and contains very few social rights. The right to work became a right to engage in work (art. 15), a right to housing became a right to housing assistance, the right to social security became ‘entitlement to social security benefits’. It creates new rights such as a right to good administration, the right to conduct a business, protection of intellectual property, etc.  The Charter does not give new competences to the European Union and cannot influence national legislation. Member states are committed to respect this Charter when they act within the competences of the European Union.

But in the meantime the new Constitutional Treaty had been adopted, though it was rejected in referendums in France and Holland. It was changed, rejected in a referendum in Ireland, adapted again and finally led to the Treaty of Lisbon. It is important to note though that the working-party on the social dimension of the Constitutional Treaty did not arrive at hard conclusions. Attempts to arrive at a better integration of social and economic policies failed. Also failed the attempts to guarantee access to public services and guarantees for the role of social partners.

The Lisbon Treaty does have a ‘horizontal social clause’ stating that “In defining and implementing its policies and activities, the Union shall take into account requirements linked to the promotion of a high level of employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health.” (article 9).

The difficulties of making any serious progress at the social level as from the beginning of the new century show how the social paradigm was changing. The impossibility to include the integration of social and economic policies, the duties of states to guarantee full employment and public services, the role of social partners, the re-wording of social rights: it all points to a social regression and an erosion of social citizenship.

Most of the fundamental changes were mentioned – indirectly – in the Lisbon strategy, which talks of the liberalization of public services and the ‘employability’ of workers. The Commission proposals for the ‘modernisation of social protection’[27] progressively introduced other major changes. Social protection becomes a tool at the service of growth and employment, benefits should go in the first place to people excluded from the labour market, people should be ‘activated’ and encouraged to participate in the labour market, health care and pensions reformed. In its proposal of 1999 four new objectives of social protection are mentioned: to make work pay, to guarantee pensions, to promote social integration and to guarantee sustainable health care.

A fundamental distrust in people’s willingness to seek for jobs comes to light. Social protection has become a factor of production which has to favour competitiveness. People need ‘incentives’ – less income guarantees – so that they go and look for jobs.

It is this changing paradigm which can explain the ‘Bolkestein’ directive on the liberalisation of services, the directive on the posting of workers, the race to the bottom and social dumping in the framework of globalisation. Proposals were made on ‘flexicurity’[28] and on the ‘modernization of labour law’[29], all involving a deregulation of labour law. Finally four arrests of the Court of Justice have to be mentioned which had disastrous consequences for the trade unions. The ‘Viking’, ‘Laval, ‘Rüffert’ and ‘Luxemburg’ cases limited the right to strike and the possibilities for public authorities to condition the attribution of public works. What we witnessed at the beginning of this century was a de facto downward social harmonization with social rights being subordinated to economic freedoms.

Moreover, in 2004, the accession of eight countries of Central Europe, with huge income gaps compared to the older Member States, make every effort for upward harmonization irrelevant.

Social policies are now subordinated to the economy. Notions such as ‘solidarity’, ‘redistribution’ and ‘inequality’ still have their place in some documents, but they are no longer at the heart of social policies and the protection of incomes. People are no longer protected against markets, but are now stimulated to participate in markets. The renewed social agenda of 2008 re-defines ‘solidarity’: it is no longer a mechanism of redistribution in order to have the whole society benefiting from progress, but only in favour of those who are ‘excluded’[30]. Instead of a strengthened cooperation and integration, there is more competition, between countries as well as between workers.

The beginning of the 21st century thus introduced a new social paradigm which subordinates the social to the economy and tries to generalize competitiveness at all levels.

Coup de grâce

Is it not strange that the Commission can claim that “The fight against poverty and social exclusion is a central concern of the European Union and its Member States[31] when not one single Treaty speaks of poverty? It means that the European institutions see ‘social exclusion’ as coterminous with ‘poverty’ and ‘poverty’ as coterminous with ‘exclusion from the labour market’. As all poverty definitions are normative, the only solution for poverty then is labour market participation.

This is what the Commission means by ‘active inclusion’: “ (i) a link to the labour market through job opportunities or vocational training; (ii) income support at a level that is sufficient for people to have a dignified life; and (iii) better access to services that may help remove some of the hurdles encountered by some individuals and their families in entering mainstream society, thereby supporting their re-insertion into employment (through, for instance, counselling, healthcare, child-care, lifelong learning to remedy educational disadvantages, ICT training to help would-be workers, including people with disabilities, take advantage of new technologies and more flexible work arrangements, psychological and social rehabilitation). Such an approach may be termed active inclusion”[32].

In 2010, stating the failure of the Lisbon Strategy, the European Commission proposed a new programme, called ‘EU2020’[33]. Again, poverty reduction policies are one of its priorities. But although the European Commission proposed to reduce the number of Europeans living below the national poverty lines by 25%, lifting over 20 million people out of poverty, the Council forgot the percentage and only speaks of the absolute number[34]. It means again a lowering of the ambitions, making it possible to lift people out of poverty while many more enter into poverty.

However, the final blow to the ‘European social model’ is being given with the current financial crisis. Major banks had to be saved as from 2008 which led to huge debt ratios for most Member States. The stability and growth pact was no longer respected and financial markets started to challenge the survival of the Euro. Greece was the first victim of speculative attacks, followed by Ireland and Portugal. Spain and Italy may come next. One country after the other lost its triple A rate, leaving only Germany, Luxemburg, Holland and Finland.

Discussions on the economic governance started again and what had been difficult to impose by internal market policies in the past, was now de facto imposed by financial markets. Member States have to reduce their public expenditures, because their fiscal deficit and their debt ratios are too high. In order to save the Euro, the Commission and the Council took drastic steps which are now changing inevitably and maybe definitely the social margins which were left.

The ‘European Semester’[35], the ‘Euro+ Pact’[36], the ‘six pack’ on economic governance[37], a new ‘Treaty on Stability[38]’: they all try to impose austerity measures in the same way as was done in third world countries after the debt crisis of the 1980s.

Lines between European Union and national competences become blurred. In the Euro Plus Pact, Heads of States and Governments recognize that ‘this Pact focuses primarily on areas that fall under national competence’. Nevertheless, they say that ‘following reforms will be given particular attention’: review of wage setting arrangements, indexation mechanisms, further opening of sheltered sectors, improving the regulatory frameworks, etc.[39].

At the same time, Member States have to give in more and more competences and are losing – willingly or unwillingly – huge parts of their sovereign rights, more particularly regarding their budgets. Simultaneoulsy, democratic rights are being eroded, even if the New Treaty on Stability states in its article 13 that the European Parliament and national parliaments can cooperate ‘in order to discuss budgetary policies and other issues covered by this Treaty’.

Diverging trends

Half a century of European history and actions concerning social policies show diverging trends. A first and very important remark is that it is not always clear if the European Commission and the European Council, the two main actors being at the beginning and at the end of the decision-making process, are stimulating new policies or are just reacting to trends already present in the Member States. What is clear however is the changing agency in social matters. While it was very clear up till more or less the Treaty of Maastricht that the European Commission was insisting on more social competences in order to achieve some degree of harmonization, the Council always blocked and stressed the national prerogatives. But the Commission was also the first to insist on the importance of financial sustainability of social protection and the need to ‘modernize’ it, giving up its harmonization efforts. Even then, the Council blocked, though with opposite arguments. It did not stress the national competences anymore, but wanted more liberalization and deregulation. Since the beginning of the current financial crisis, it is clearly the Council which takes the initiatives to dismantle what remains of the welfare states.

The changing social paradigm in the European Union is somewhat similar to what happened at the global level, where the World Bank and the IMF imposed ‘Washington Consensus’ policies when the debt crisis in poor countries began and later imposed ‘poverty reduction policies’, clearly stating they were against broader social protection and social security policies[40]. While these poverty reduction policies remain very imperfect, there were attempts at the global and at national levels, to implement them and to reduce poverty. At the level of the European Union however, there is yet no real political willingness to attack poverty, while welfare states are being dismantled. The changed wording of the EU2020 strategy clearly shows that the Council continues to give priority to growth, stability and austerity policies. Nevertheless, in all probability, this is what is going to happen, as is already stated by Social Observatory Europe: There is a risk that social protection and social inclusion’ are being reduced to social inclusion alone, reduced to fighting poverty’[41].

The Commission and the Council continue to stress the importance of ‘values’, though it is not clear what values they are referring to. ‘Social dialogue is a key component of the European social model’ say Commission president Barroso and Council president Van Rompuy[42], while at the same time recommending to change collective bargaining procedures. And during the European Year for Fighting Poverty, 2010, Council president Van Rompuy met with religious leaders and talked of the ‘moral and value crisis’ in society. He asked them to not only fight material poverty, but to restore the dignity of human beings and to help poor people. In this way, poverty is seen again as a moral problem and charity becomes a solution[43].

It is precisely because of the constant referral to ‘values’ and discourses on the ‘European social model’ that the change of meaning and of paradigm remained hidden for such a long time. Important changes were brought about through policies for implementing the internal market or for protecting competition. But while ‘competition’ policies were used in the beginning against ‘dominant positions’ and ‘concerted actions’ of corporations trying to create monopolies, after ‘Maastricht’ they were used to liberalize public services. This is also why the rulings of the European Court of Justice of 2009 came as a shock to all those who thought social rights were part of the ‘values’ of the EU. While many of the objectives of the Lisbon Strategy can be interpreted as being in conformity with EU ‘values’, they totally change and become a threat to the existing ‘social model’ when interpreted in a neoliberal framework. The ‘Stability Pact’, the necessary ‘modernization of social protection’, the fight against ‘social exclusion’ all get a different neoliberal meaning, once one gets rid of the naïve belief in social rights.


Today, the European Union has 114 million people ‘at risk of poverty or social exclusion’[44].  The EU has 10,2 % unemployment, or 24,5 million people. Youth unemployment is 22,4 %, with peaks of up to 50,5 % in Spain and Greece[45].  And no, it is not for lack of prosperity that welfare states are in crisis.

We now know how we have to understand the ‘procession of Echternach’: it is two steps forward and three steps backward. It is social regression. Whether our welfare states will survive is uncertain and will depend on the strength of resisting social movements. But what is already clear is that they have acquired a new meaning and risk to narrow down the possible solidarity.

In spite of many interesting and even utopian projects, the European Union is today not on a road of more integration, on the contrary. An inter-governmental Union is taking form with more attention for national interests than for European interests. There are less and less binding arrangements, and even before the new Stability Treaty was signed, Spain already asked for exemptions. The Treaty itself is only signed by 25 Member States and will come into force when 12 Member States of the Eurozone have ratified. Today, it is the Council giving its recommendations for social measures/dismantlement. The prevailing concern is fiscal balance, not social progress.

Changing the social paradigm silently was possible because of the progressive steps and the tortuous way they followed through monetary union, internal market and competition policies. But it was also facilitated by the change of scale. Many of the changes would not have been possible if proposed by national governments at the national level. There is no reason at all to ‘blame’ the European Union for the social regression, since all measures were fully endorsed, if not stimulated by national governments in the Council. Resistance to these measures is far more difficult at the European level, since social movements and trade unions are still mainly active within their national democracies. Moreover, at the European level, every small step in favour of ‘fighting poverty’ of ‘employment policy’ can be interpreted as a small progress towards more European social integration, while at the same time, it may weaken national social policies. In fact, what has been happening in the past two decades, is indeed a harmonization of social policies, but a downward one. It is a kind of convergence towards a ‘social floor’ such as the ILO is promoting today for poor countries.

The new knowledge and the new social consensus then – at the level of governments – were not created ex nihilo. It followed a different path than what happened at the global level, particularly at the World Bank. In Europe, it was built with the concepts of the old paradigm. It talks of ‘values’, ‘our social model’, ‘inclusion’ and – indirectly – of ‘poverty’. This made possible that many social movements continued to believe – or had an argument to believe – in social progress. They can be interpreted as a ‘small step forward in the process of European integration’. However, against the background of neoliberal philosophy, these concepts acquired a new meaning and led to policies which are in fact regressive. Many different agents are contributing to this changing focus. While the European Commission is trying to present ‘balanced’ proposals, the Court of Justice and the Member States themselves are far more straightforward. More and more, Member States show they do not need competences derived from the Treaties in order to make agreements at the European level. They just decide to do what they want to do and can do with the current political majorities. They do not seem to be driven by rational – economic – arguments but are acting on ideological grounds.

Today, it is clear that the underlying philosophy of all changes is indeed neoliberalism, a political programme aimed at changing the State. It is not about weakening states, but about having strong and leaner States, able to protect the market and the market players, to protect competition and property rules, to defend its ‘values’ as the Lisbon Treaty says, but without any obligation of social integration or of building socially cohesive societies. It is a State defending civil and political rights, but abandoning economic and social rights. The risk of seeing the relative poverty measures disappear in favour of ‘extreme poverty’ eradication is real. While important strands of poverty research indicate that poverty cannot be eradicated by working exclusively at the level of poor people, the impoverishment processes are not tackled. Poor people are seen as the last ‘resource’ which can be exploited in favour of growth. It is one more confirmation of Simmel’s thesis that poor people never are the first objective of poverty policies[46]. In the best of hypothesis, they have collateral advantages.

In this context, social citizenship cannot prosper. Inequalities are rising everywhere and national social citizenship is threatened by the progressive dismantlement of social rights and public services. At the European level, a ‘citizenship’ was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht, though is has little meaning for non-workers and beyond voting and petition rights. If we consider citizenship as a ‘status’ – having the right to have rights, as Hanna Arendt put it – and as a ‘practice’ we have to conclude that there is no development of any citizenship at the European level. Social rights do not come about and the democratic deficit is growing by the power shift towards the national governments in the European Council. Equally, there is no longer a de-commodification of goods, but a strong tendency for commodification. Poor people are encouraged if not forced to enter the labour market, they are no longer protected against it. As for solidarity, the few existing mechanisms at the European level – the structural funds and now the stability fund – are too limited and too conditional. We cannot but conclude that the way social policies are changing is contrary to the principles which were at the basis of the welfare states.

This development puts the progressive left before a dilemma. Ideally, it should be in favour of strong European institutions able to better organize organic solidarity and citizenship, coupled to a strong and sustainable economy. Smaller countries in the European Union cannot dream of ever achieving these goals on their own. Only international cooperation can strengthen solidarity. ‘My vision is a political Union’ Chancellor Merkel said recently[47]. Many will share her dream, though with a different content than what she has been promoting these past years. A federal European Union with strong solidarity between all citizens and residents, with strong links between economic and social policies and the enhancement of all human rights, is still within reach, though it is no longer on the agenda of the leaders in the European Council or the European Commission. If to-morrow, a plan for growth and against social exclusion is launched, it will have to be scrutinized since, if it remains stuck in a neoliberal philosophy, it can only, in the best of hypothesis, promote civil and political rights, but in no way economic and social rights.

What seems to be urgent to-day, to save democracy and to save a strong federal European Union, is a re-conceptualization of democracy and of social protection, broadening it beyond national citizenship and taking into account migration, incorporating labour law and public services, taking into account the new rights that will be necessary to cope with climate change, and taking into account our cultural diversity. This social protection can be considered a ‘commons’ and it is the best prevention of poverty. Citizenship, delinked from nationality, is of utmost importance to give individuals a political status of equality, which enables them to enhanced democracy and change the way financial markets are functioning, and finally to stop ‘poverty reduction’ as and end-of-the-pipe solution which does not stop impoverishment processes. Social protection will have to preserve and protect social life and individuals, individual and collective rights, answer to material and immaterial needs[48]. It is about ‘solidarity’, meaning ‘standing together’ seeking not a common interest but balanced interests. A new social citizenship will have to go beyond our current and too limited vision on social protection, let alone the current failing ‘European integration’.

[1] The main and best known categorizations are from Esping-Andersen, G., The three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, London, Polity Press, 1990, and Sapir, A., Globalization and the Reform of European Social Models,

[2] Marshall, T.H., Class, Citizenship and Social Development, New York, Doubleday and Company, 1965.

[3] Polanyi, K., The Great Transformation. The political and economic origins of our time, Boston, Beacon Press, 1957.

[4] Durkheim, E., De la Division du Travail Social, Paris, PUF, 1973 (9ème éd.).

[5] Quoted in Agence Europe, 20 January 1989 and Agence Europe 7 May 1993.

[6] ILO, Ohlin Report, 1956.

[7] Treaty of Rome, 1957, article 117.

[8] See e.g. Communication of the European Commission on the problems of social security, 18 November 1982, quoted in La Politique sociale de la Communauté européenne, Pérodique 5/1983, Documentation européenne, Luxembourg, 1983.

[9] Mentioned in Raulier, A. and Deregnacourt, G., Les politiques sociales de la Communauté européenne, CRISP, 1990, n° 1267-1268, Bruxelles.

[10] Council of Europe, 1961, ratified by all member states of the European Community.

[11] Article 118A and 118 B Single Act.

[12] Agence Europe, n° 4933(nouvelle série) 14 January 1989.

[13] Discourse for the College of Europe, Bruges, September 1988.

[14] Périgot of the French employers organisation CNPF, quoted in Libération, 13 December 1988.

[15] Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, text adopted by the Heads of State or Government of 11 Member States, Strasbourg, 9 December 1989.

[16] Programme d’action de la Commission européenne visant la mise en œuvre de la charte communautaire des droits sociaux fondamentaux des travailleurs, Europe Documents, 18 December 1989.

[17] Europe, n° 5490 (nouvelle série), 15 & 16 mars 1993.

[18] Europe, n° 5913, 5 février 1993.

[19] Council recommendations 92/441/EEC and 92/442/EEC, 24 June and 27 July 1992.

[20] Pochet, P., “The Open Method of Co-ordination and the Construction of Social Europe” in Zeitlin, J. et al., The Open Method of Co-ordination in Action, Brussels, Peter Lang, 2005.

[21] Europe, n° 5995 (nouvelle série), 7 et 8 juin 1993.

[22] Treaty of Amsterdam, article 118.

[23] Treaty of Amsterdam, article 109 O

[24] Treaty of Nice, article 137 j) and k), article with topics for which ‘The Commission shall support and complement the activities of the Member States’.

[25] European Council, Conclusions of the Presidency, Lisbon, 23-24 March 2000.

[26] Communication of the Commission on ‘An Agenda for Social Policy’, COM (2000) 379, 28 June 2000.

[27] See e.g. COM(1995)466, COM (97) 102, COM (1999)347.

[28] European Commission, Communication Towards common principles on flexicurity’, COM(2007)359/F, 27 June 2007.

[29] European Commission, Green Paper on Modernising Labour Law, Com (2006)708F, 22 November 2006.

[30] European Commission, Communication on a Renewed Social Agenda, COM(2008)0412, 2 July 2008.

[31] European Commission, Communication on the active inclusion of persons excluded from the labour market, COM (2006) 44, p. 8.

[32] Id.

[33] Communication of the European Commission, EU 2020 Strategy, COM(2010)2020, 3 March 2010.

[34] European Council, Conclusions of the Presidency, 17 June 2010.

[36] European Council, Conclusions of the Presidency, 25-25 March 2011.

[39] See note 36.

[40] For a full analysis of this paradigm shift, see Mestrum, F., Mondialisation et pauvreté. De l’utilité de la pauvreté dans le nouvel ordre mondial, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002.

[41] Vanhercke, B., “Is the social dimension of EU2020 an oxymoron?” in Degryse, C. and Natali, D., Social developments in the European Union 2010, Brussels, OSE and ETUI, 2011..

[42] Bulletin Quotidien, 2 March 2012.

[43] Bulletin Quotidien, n° 10184, 20 July 2010.

[44] European Commission, Employment and Social Development in Europe 2011, Brussels, November 2011.

[45] Eurostat, Newsrelease 52/2012, 2 April 2012.

[46] Simmel, G., Les pauvres’, Paris, PUF, 1998 [1908].

[47] Bulletin Quotidien, 8 February 2012.

[48] See Mestrum, F., Social Protection and the Common Good of Humanity, 2012, forthcomling.

Focus on
Interesting links
Follow me
facebook twitter rss