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In 2012, 24.8 % of the European Union population was at risk of poverty. 40.2 % of the population said it would be hard to be faced with unexpected financial expenditures. In Belgium, 21.6 % of the population is at risk of poverty, but without social allowances, this would rise to 27.8 %.[1] In other words, social protection is needed and is useful.

In all European countries political declarations on welfare states show the same pattern. Welfare states have to be come ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’, people have to take on more responsibility and have to ‘participate’, unemployment benefits are being curtailed, pensions are privatized, costs have to be reduced in health care. In many countries the focus is now on ‘child poverty’, as if children did not live in poor households …

Of course there are differences, between countries and between political parties. Right wing parties will be more willing to accept the austerity policies imposed by the European Union, while social-democratic parties will try to soften their consequences. But all in all, the philosophy of their policies is the same. And the only conclusion this leads to is that welfare states are in decline.


Should we blame the European Union for this? Did the European Commission not propose to add a ‘social dimension’ to the Economic and Monetary Union? Did it not write a communication on a ‘social investment package’ beginning of 2013? It certainly did, but the fact is that the European Union has no competences for the social security systems of its Member States. Secondly, the recent proposals of the European Commission do not offer more or better protection to people.

Who else can be responsible? The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development)? The World Bank? These institutions have now been working for quite some years on social policies and do propose now and then new initiatives that really sound good. Such as on poverty reduction. Or participation. But each time, these initiatives weaken the protection that is offered to people, weaken the solidarity mechanisms, reduce their redistributive potential and offer less security.

A first conclusion certainly must be that ‘at the top’ and globally, a new thinking on social protection has been introduced. With ‘new’ I mean something different than what was promoted after the Second World War, when welfare states emerged and developed, and also something different than at the start of the crisis in the 1970s. This means that an analysis of what party ‘x’ or ‘y’ in Belgium, France, Germany or the UK are doing, certainly is useful, but it is also important to look at what the new ideas are at the level of international organisations and what are the common characteristics of these new social policies. New social policies have found their way, first in the periphery of the ‘third world’, then in the core countries of capitalism. Apparently, there is a ‘new order of discourse’, a new ‘truth’ about social problems and social policies, and all political parties from the whole political spectrum, seem to have adopted it.[2]

What I want to explain in this contribution, is that it does not help to blame the European Union for the social problems in our countries. Certainly, austerity policies are wrong, and the social recommendations of the European Commission or the Council are inappropriate. But what is happening, at the global level as well as at the level of national Member States, is the introduction of a new paradigm on social policies, putting an end to the welfare state as we have known it. The European Union is just one part of this global change.

Neoliberal globalisation not only imposes a new vision on the State and on the economy, but also a different philosophy of social policies. It is no coincidence that international organisations are currently promoting ‘social protection’. But it is important to know that this means something totally different from what was called ‘welfare states’ in Europe. If we want to react to the dismantlement of social protection in our core countries, it is therefore important to know what is behind the changes that are being introduced. It means we have to look beyond governments and their majorities, and even beyond the European Union. What we will need if we want to defend some basic principles of our welfare states is a new progressive vision on what social protection should be, on how we can break the neoliberal mould and on how we can develop universal and multi-level social protection.

In this contribution, ‘social protection’ is used as the over-arching concept. It consists of social security (social insurances), social assistance (for people not active on the labour market), pubic services (or services of general interest) and labour law. It can also consist of infrastructural works like sanitation, or environmental rights such as the right to water and clean air.

A philosophy of redistribution and protection

Labour is not a commodity’, ‘poverty somewhere is a threat to welfare everywhere’: these are two short quotes from the ‘Declaration of Philadelphia’ which was added in 1944 to the Constitution of the ILO (International Labour Organisation).

When the Treaty of Rome was being prepared in 1956 in order to create the European Economic Community, a group of experts from the ILO, chaired by Bertil Ohlin, wrote a report which said that the new organisation did not need specific competences for social policies. Economic growth, it was thought, would automatically lead to social progress. Nevertheless, article 117 of the Treaty of Rome stated that there was a ‘need to promote improved conditions and an improved standard of living for workers, so as to make possible their harmonisation while their improvement is being maintained’.

Many countries, such as Belgium, concluded a ‘social pact’ after the Second World War. In Belgium, it stated that trade unions were recognized as fully equal partners. The common endeavour was to limit industrial conflicts and ‘to improve the standard of living of the population’.[3]

The welfare states were fully developed in the 1950s and 1960s, but they never had a comprehensive theoretical foundation. Academics such as T.H. Marshall, François Ewald or Robert Castel did give it a try. T.H. Marshall explained social protection because of the awareness that political and civil rights did not have much meaning if economic inequality was too important. Ewald reflected on a new vision of risk and the recognition of collective responsibility in the emerging industrial society. Castel saw the emergence of collective ownership - social funds created with the savings of workers - as the basis for their citizenship. But these explanations never were fully or generally accepted.[4]

From a purely economic viewpoint Keynesianism and Fordism should of course be mentioned. Governments became responsible for promoting growth and, consequently, for the insurance of workers, which was deemed necessary. The stability of the labour force had to guarantee a flowering economy.

From its inception, though, social protection was also contested. Its efficiency was questioned, and one of the major arguments was persistent poverty in almost all rich countries.[5] The ‘embarrassing secret of welfare states’, according to Claus Offe, was that they were able to destroy capitalism, though their abolition would also be plainly disruptive. There are indeed many contradictions. Some goods and services can be de-commodified, but at the same time welfare states depend on commodity production. They require planning but cannot interfere in the market. They legitimate capitalism but at the same time they empower those who want to abolish capitalism. The abolition of welfare states, according to Offe, would require the abolition of political democracy.[6]

All the same, Europe served as an example for the rest of the world. In 1969, the general Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Declaration on ‘Development and social Progress’.[7] This text contains all the elements of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural rights, as it had been adopted in 1966, and also all ingredients of western welfare states. Even in a report written for the World Bank in 1969[8], social security is being promoted because it could give individuals independence from their families and communities, and would thus allow them to take risks and take the opportunities of the labour market.

Most countries in the so-called ‘third world’, did indeed start to build welfare states. This was considered to be an element of development and nation-building, and even if some African countries, after independence, never were able to do more than give pensions and some health care to the military, their civil servants and the small number of workers in the formal sector, there was a strong belief that social progress was feasible.

The neoliberal turn

Major changes started in the 1980s with the introduction of ‘structural adjustment programmes’ by the World Bank and the IMF in countries that suffered from an external debt crisis. These programmes can best be compared to what the ‘troika’ (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) is doing today in the European Union in countries like Greece, Portugal or Ireland. The World Bank always claimed it never imposed cuts in social spending, but it should be clear that these are the first public expenditures to decline when fiscal resources are lacking. The 1980s have entered history as the ‘lost decade’ for development in Latin America and Africa. In the same way as is happening to-day in the European Union, wages were lowered, companies were privatised or went broke, civil servants and workers were dismissed, social services were closed down.

In 1990 the World Bank proposed to put poverty reduction on the international agenda. UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) proposed an indicator for ‘human development’. Many development NGOs were happy, they thought that international organisations finally got a ‘social conscience’. But those who analysed the international proposals, rapidly drew a different conclusion. In the first place, the poverty programmes did not involve any change to what was then called the ‘Washington Consensus’, the neoliberal policy that was being promoted worldwide. Secondly, these poverty programmes were not conceptualized as being an improvement of existing social protection systems, but as an alternative to them. Social security is not desirable in poor countries, so it was said repeatedly. The old recipes that claimed to fight poverty with social expenditures and safety nets, are wrong.[9] The international organisations were not against social security, but these did not belong to the core missions of government. People who wanted to insure themselves, could turn to the market.[10]

‘From safety net to springboard’, said the World Bank, and it developed a whole new reasoning that came down to what is now called ‘activation’ in Europe.[11] People should have an opportunity to develop their human capital and in so doing prepare themselves for the ever changing labour market. ‘Participation’ became a ‘do-it-yourself’ social policy to be implemented by women.

In fact, the ‘poverty reduction strategy’ in development policy was nothing else than the label put on the disastrous neoliberal policy and had to hide a radical social regression.[12]

We, in Europe, were seeing what happened, but did not really react. This was the ‘third world’, and we, in the core countries, were never to be the victims of such policies. We needed a full-blown monetary and financial crisis, twenty years later, to see we were wrong. The decline of welfare states is a fact in Europe as well.

The European internal market

The first important change in the European Union came with the introduction of the internal market in 1992. Till then, the European Commission had always insisted on having more competences for social matters, but this was constantly refused by the Member States. Nevertheless, in the first decades of the European Community, quite some social legislation had been adopted in order to improve the situation of workers. There was a social fund for the reconversion of miners, there was equality for men and women, social security for migrant workers, rules for collective dismissals, rules for preserving workers’ rights when companies were transferred, etc.

As from the 1980s, the European Commission started to look at the financing of social security. The Single European Act of 1987 allowed for majority voting on all issues concerning the health and safety of workers. This made more legislation possible, and this hope was strengthened by the promotion of a European social dialogue and a reference to the Social Charter of the Council of Europe.[13]

In 1989, a modest ‘social Charter’ of the European Community was adopted[14], though for the United Kingdom of Margaret Thatcher this was one step too far. It therefore  remained a protocol of 11 Member States. The social-democratic Commission chairman, Jacques Delors, fought for more social rights, but lost. It became clear that Thatcher was far from isolated when fighting against social rights at the European level and against trade unions. In Germany, the chancellor was Helmut Kohl, in Greece, Spain and France governments were led by social-democrats. In the second half of 1988 and in 1989 these three occupied the presidency of the Council of the European Communities. In Belgium, Wilfried Martens was Prime Minister, in a coalition with both social-democratic parties.

The introduction of convergence criteria in the Treaty of Maastricht, in preparation of the single currency, obliged Member States to respect rigid fiscal rules. The calls for ‘social convergence’ and an ‘economic security council’ were not heard anymore.

Nevertheless, in 1992, two important recommendations were adopted in the European Council, one on the convergence of the objectives of social policies, the other on common criteria for social assistance in social protection systems.[15] The objective of social protection, according to these documents, is guaranteeing a minimum income, access to health care, social-economic integration and assistance in case of unemployment. The Council asks governments to recognize this basic right of everyone and to provide the necessary resources for social assistance in order to make it possible that all have a life in dignity. The Council also recommended governments to determine the amount needed and to provide for it in their budgets for social protection.

These recommendations have never been implemented.

As for the anti-poverty programmes of the European Commission, they were contested by Germany and brought before the European Court of Justice. Lacking a proper legal basis, they were abandoned.

In 1993, Jacques Delors said: ‘The European social model is threatened’. But at that moment, the real decline still had to start.

Neoliberal orientations

The Charter of Fundamental Rights[16] which was adopted in 2000, is extremely modest in its ambitions on social rights. Nevertheless, it could not be integrated into the draft Constitutional Treaty. In the Charter, the right to work became a right to engage in work (art. 15), the right to social security became a right to social security benefits (art. 34). New rights are added, such as a right to good governance (art. 41), the freedom to conduct a business (art. 16), the right to intellectual property (art. 17). It does not give the European Union new competences and it cannot influence national legislation. The Member States have to respect the Charter when they are working within the framework of European competences.

In the difficult debates around the draft Constitutional Treaty, it was not possible to include social guarantees. The Treaty of Lisbon, which was drafted after the rejection by France and Holland of this draft treaty, does contain a horizontal clause, stating: ‘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’.[17]

It is surprising to see how very limited the European social legislation is that was adopted these past decades. New neoliberal thinking is not introduced by law, but by way of policy documents, coordination mechanisms and governance measures.

An important policy document in this context is the ‘Lisbon process’, stating in 2000 that the European Union wants to become ‘the most competitive knowledge economy’ in the world.[18] Such an endeavour clearly implies a sophisticated industrial policy, research and development. But the whole matter was entrusted to the Member States and there was no coordination. It obviously failed. Efforts were made to integrate a social and an ecological dimension, but there was no follow-up.

In this document it can clearly be seen how the changing social thinking is being introduced. There is no talk of ‘unemployment’ anymore, but of the ‘employment rate’. It concerns the ‘employability’ of people, that is, their potential to effectively find a job on the labour market, and on the liberalisation of public services. More people should participate in the labour market. The reduction of poverty requires drastic interventions, according to the Lisbon process, though there is no budget or legislation for it, only an ‘open method of coordination’. It failed. A ‘social agenda’ is adopted, speaking of the ‘modernization of social protection’. The Commission made proposals for flexicurity, a failed attempt to combine the flexibility which is asked for by employers, with security for workers.[19]

Some legislation however did make it, though with extremely heavy difficulties, such as the directive on the liberalisation of services (the so-called Bolkestein directive), and on the posting of workers. Neoliberal visions won from social-democratic corrections.

Add to this the very negative role of the European Court of Justice with some famous judgements, such as in the cases ‘Laval’, ‘Viking’, ‘Rüffert’ and ‘Luxemburg’.[20] They confirm that economic freedoms are considered more important than social rights and that local or national authorities can no longer impose their own rules concerning social or environmental priorities in public procurements.

What also becomes clear beginning of the 21st century is that ‘social exclusion’ for the European Union means exclusion from the labour market. What different documents show is a fundamental distrust in people; they are said to need ‘incentives’ because in fact they prefer the safety net of unemployment. The objective of social protection is changed. Instead of guaranteeing income security, it becomes ‘making work pay’. It means that the difference between the lowest wage and the highest allowance must be large enough so as not to discourage workers. Add to this the constant concern to keep social security ‘sustainable’ (by which is meant that it can be paid for), and the obvious consequence becomes the lowering of allowances and benefits.

Economic governance

The economic and financial crisis that threatened the euro is at the origin of new legislation geared towards ‘economic governance’, and, indirectly, of social policies that limit the room for manoeuvre of governments.

The most important policy document of the 21st century is the so-called ‘EU-2020’ strategy, replacing the Lisbon process[21]. Analyzing this paper, one sees a greater willingness than ten years before to really deliver, though till now, the results are more than disappointing. At the level of social policies, the documents speaks of a ‘poverty-target’ of twenty million poor people less in 2020 than in 2010. However, as the European anti-poverty network states, the national reform programmes do not really integrate this target.[22] In its proposal, the European Commission talked of reducing by 20 % the number of poor people, but the Council omitted to mention this percentage. It means that yes, maybe one can lift 20 million people out of poverty, but in the meantime, poverty numbers can rise – and they do – so that in 2020 the total number of poor people might even be higher than in 2010!

The ‘European semester’ consists of a number of procedures that oblige Member States to have balanced budgets. Contrary to the ‘Stability Pact’ which was adopted after the introduction of the euro – and which was not respected by major countries such as Germany and France – the institutions have now planned for sanctions when the rules are not respected. In a ‘sixpack’,  a ‘twopack’ and a proper ‘fiscal pact’, detailed rules have been written down for Member States to respect.[23]

It would be wrong to think that all negative influence finds its origin at the level of the European Commission. The European Council – the meeting of Heads of State and Governments – has to agree with all Commission proposals and it is in fact the institution that orders the Commission to issue these strict rules. An excellent example of this is the so-called ‘Euro Plus Pact’, adopted by the European Council in March 2011.[24] In their conclusions, the heads of government say explicitly that there are a number of issues for which they have no European competences. Nevertheless they recommend governments – themselves – to keep pensions and social benefits sustainable, to lower ‘taxes’ on wages, to align the retirement age with life expectancy, to limit early retirements, to adapt the wage setting arrangements, to promote flexicurity, to open sheltered sectors of professional services and the retail sector, to adapt indexation mechanisms, etc.

A study by the European Trade Union Institute clearly shows that all national governments are eagerly adapting their labour law, even without any obligation from the European Union, in order to weaken trade unions.[25] Many fundamental rights are violated, and some labour experts have pointed to this in a manifesto addressed at the European institutions.[26] Especially the undermining of collective bargaining mechanisms is denounced, as well as the fact that fundamental rights cannot be subordinated to the internal market or the competition rules. In the long term, according to these experts, this will lead to xenophobia and will threaten peace.

In February 2013, the European Commission published a number of proposals for ‘social investment’.[27] This idea certainly is interesting, since it is about developing people’s ‘human capital’ so that they can engage strongly in the labour market. The basic idea is that remedial action should be replaced by preventing social hazards. In the academic literature[28] it was emphasized that these social investments have to be accompanied by strong social protection, and that they certainly cannot be conceived of as an austerity measure. It is one thing to give people good vocational training and health care, it is quite another to help people who, for one reason or another, cannot cope or to give the elderly an opportunity for an old life in dignity.

The European Commission seems to have ignored this question and proposes instead ‘social innovation’. Again, this is a brilliant idea, since it is based on the fact that there are many things citizens can take care of themselves, without having to call on the government. This is certainly correct and there are many good examples in most cities of car-sharing, recycling initiatives, community housing, etc. These are initiatives that perfectly fit with local democratic renewal. But how this could help to make social protection less expensive is not clear at all. On the contrary, the door is opened for another kind of ‘private’ initiatives, such as the multinationals of ‘care’ which, in many countries, are investing in houses for the elderly, or for corporations that are good at combining commerce and charity.

Once again, we end up with ‘participation’ and the fact that people are supposed to help themselves. A Belgian survey revealed that a majority of people think that elderly of over 85 years old should not have rights to expensive treatments. This is exactly what ‘social investments’ are about. In order to have sufficient ‘return’, some social policies should be abandoned, and individuals should take more responsibility. If you are ill, it probably means you have done or eaten something wrong. You want to go to university? Excellent! You want to study anthropology or political philosophy? Well, this does not lead to the labour market, so you’d better pay for it yourself. You should not burden society with your individual desires. When talking about ‘investments’, the thinking automatically turns towards return, and inevitably people have to pay, in many cases, for their doctor or their education themselves.

At their European Council meeting of June and October 2013, the heads or government adopted two more social measures that have to be mentioned. Firstly, they adopted a ‘youth guarantee’ which means that young people till 25 years of age, should be offered, four months after they have left school or became unemployed, a qualitative job, an apprenticeship or internship. This is a very positive step, though one cannot but wonder if this can also lead to sustainable jobs, or whether this is cheap and temporary labour force offered to companies.

Secondly, the ‘social dimension’ of the European Union has been strengthened. This means that certain standards concerning social expenditures will be integrated into the monitoring mechanisms on national budgets. This could be positive for countries that do not spend enough, but it could also be negative for those who do have decent social protection. Moreover, these standards are not binding. In the framework of the ‘national recommendations’ the European Commission now makes, Belgium has already received many ‘social recommendations’, more particularly in order to adapt its indexation mechanism and the wage setting arrangements, to limit early retirement, to improve the transition from school to labour market, etc. It has to be noted that at least 40 % of all recommendations concern social policies.[29]

In that same framework, a proposal has been made, in the case of a macro-economic shock which can lead to rapidly rising unemployment in a Member State, to have unemployment benefits be paid for a short period by the European Commission. Whether such a measure can be easily implemented is another question and depends on how precisely it is interpreted, that is whether a treaty change would be necessary or not.

A social Europe?

Heated debates are possible on the question whether there is such a thing as a ‘European social model’.[30] All West-European and Scandinavian countries have developed, after the second World War, a system of social protection and benefits, based on national citizenship, de-commodification of certain goods and services (public services), universalism – even if it was rarely achieved – and organic solidarity – we show solidarity with people we have never met and do not know.

This is the system that is now threatened. Some parts of our social protection may survive, but the philosophy on which they were based, has gone. As the European Commission is stating to-day in its proposal for social investments: the objective of welfare states is in the very first place the investment in people, secondly, social protection and thirdly, the stabilisation of the economy. All proposals of the European Commission are geared towards the ‘inclusion’ of people in the labour market, what is called in countries as Belgium ‘activation’.

What is at stake in the European Union is the introduction of a ‘market without State’, called ‘ordoliberalism’ in Germany.[31] What it is about is a regulated market – and not a ‘free’ market of the better known neoliberals – with institutions caring for its good functioning. This means competitiveness, property rights and monetary stability have to be preserved. At the national level this leads to ‘strong’ states, not for economic intervention, but for the protection of the market. Democracy is of no concern. What is needed are strong rules for governance and the constitutionalization of fiscal rules (the golden rule of fiscal balance). According to ordoliberals, there is no need for a social state, but only for rules to avoid poverty, to promote responsibility and charity.

This is what is called a ‘social market economy’, since this economy is said to be wanted by consumers.[32] In this system, people will not be socially assisted, but they will be owners, depositors and savers, or independent producers. If there is a moral crisis in the West, according to this philosophy, it has nothing to do with capitalism or individualization, but everything with the lack of supervision and the weakening of social fabric and the cohesion of families. Redistribution is not on the agenda.

In Germany , this model has played a role after the Second World War in the coming about of the ‘Wirtchaftswunder’. However, the Constitutional Court kept insisting on the importance of democratic legitimacy. In the European Community, the ordoliberals did not succeed to impose their model. For divergent reasons, the German federalists and the French Gaullists could not agree with it. Instead of its rules, an ambiguous mechanism with shared competences for workers was agreed on, whereas social security was entirely left to Member States. With the neoliberal turn of the 1980s and 1990s, new space was created to introduce a new philosophy.

This was also made possible by another characteristic of the existing ‘social Europe’. As it has been stated already, the current social changes are not only a consequence of European legislation or recommendations. National governments are very often running in front of European institutions. The multilevel characteristic of policies does play an important role however. National governments can easily refer to ‘Europe’ when introducing change, which is sometime correct but very often untrue. National States always have a lot of room left for their own decisions. If Belgium still has an indexation mechanism, it is thanks to the existence of still rather strong trade unions. Resistance remains possible.

But every small measure at the European level can be presented as a small step in the direction of a ‘social Europe’. In most cases however, it can also be seen as a step backwards for national social protection. Again, Belgium’s example is crystal clear. Regional authorities and the European Union have no competences for social security. On the side of the European Union, social security is influenced by the recommendations of the European Commission. At the side of regional authorities, efforts are geared towards poverty policies and labour market policies. At both sides, the focus is on matters that do not necessarily fit with national priorities concerning social protection. Many measures that have been adopted in the European Union, would never have been possible at the national level, but were adopted because they came about thanks to soft law and technical recommendations.

What has been happening these past two or three decades is indeed a kind of harmonization  of social policies, not upwards, but downwards. It is a kind of ‘convergence’, in the direction of a ‘protection floor’ as the ILO now proposes for countries in the South.

Social policy today

In Belgium 15.3 % of the population lives with a risk of income poverty. 20.8 % of the population admits to have difficulties to make ends meet. Unemployment is 7.7 %.[33]

In the European Union 125 million people are at risk of poverty. Unemployment is 11 %. Almost one in four young people has no job. In Greece, Spain and some suburbs of the European capital of Brussels, youth unemployment is more than 50 %.

Globally, more than one billion people are extremely poor, a poverty you can die from. The inequality between the poor and the rich has reached unacceptable high levels.

The question is, then, if governments and international organisations are willing to do something about it?

Once again, it seems that international organisations are in the front row to react and to say something has to be done. The ILO wants to introduce in developing countries ‘social protection floors’ with basic social services and benefits.[34] To-day, all organisations talk of ‘social protection’ instead of ‘poverty reduction’. The European Commission wants to strengthen the ‘social dimension’ of its Economic and Monetary Union. All national governments speak of the preservation of a ‘European social model’. But what does this mean?

As we have seen, what is happening to-day has nothing to do with the old vision on social protection and welfare states. It is far from citizenship, guaranteeing social and economic rights, solidarity or redistribution. To-day, social protection means something totally different.

But nationally, at the European level and globally, there are common characteristics which influence the future of social policy and give it its new meaning.

This concerns in the first place the objective of social protection. Globally and at the European level what is emphasized is the economic role of social protection. The objective remains economic growth and growth needs more people – the last resource that is not in danger of being depleted. All adult, healthy people, men and women, have to engage in the labour market. Social protection can help to achieve this and is totally at the service of growth and the market.

Secondly, the concept of ‘risk’ in the emerging industrial society of the 19th century has changed again. Collective risks are now individual risks. Those who do  not live a healthy life have no right to protection. Cardio-vascular accidents and suicide are not collective consequences of the rat race, but individual consequences of individual behaviour. Those who are poor or unemployed bear the consequences of the choices they have made. For the World Bank, poverty is today a consequence of the fact that people are risk averse. Therefore, social protection becomes risk management.[35]

What directly follows from this is the abandonment of universal rights. There are now targets, deserving poor and non deserving poor, a secular mechanism. The deserving poor can receive help, the non deserving will be punished. Repression of small crime is a direct consequence. Poverty is not a social problem, but a problem of individuals who have to be re-directed towards appropriate behaviour. Deserving poor are ‘employable’ and can be ‘activated’, as long as they are prepared to take risks. The others will depend on charity.

Fourthly, general social protection is slowly disappearing and is replaced by conditional poverty policies. The money has to go to those who really need it. Poor people, it is said, have the same risks as all others, but they are more vulnerable. Hence, they have to develop their ‘resilience’ so as to bounce back rapidly when a ‘shock’ happens, an epidemic, a macro-economic shock or a natural catastrophe. In the European Union as well, this shift from social protection to poverty reduction has been noted.[36] No one dares yet to speak against social protection, but social insurance is being privatised and one tries to delink social protection from labour. Those who earn enough can buy an insurance on the market, answering to the specific needs of the individual or of the family, without solidarity. According to this philosophy, this is not a State mission and employers should not have to pay for it.

According to this logic, it is not problematic at all to liberalise and finally privatize public services. This creates new markets and the new vision on social protection allows for even more markets to be created, such as for education, health care, all types of insurances, etc. This ‘free’ trade in services plays a very important role, as is made clear in the current debates on the recently proposed ‘Transatlantic Investment and Trade Partnership’ between the US and the EU. The consequences for health care, for instance, can be important.[37]

Finally, people are supposed to become more self-reliant. They can ‘take their life into their own hands’, they do not have to depend on government, they can decide for themselves on how to organize their lives and on how to protect themselves. Here the ambiguity of the discourse concerns more particularly women. Women, and most of all female heads of households, are always presented as being problematic. It is certainly correct that it will be more difficult for a single mother to earn sufficient income for her family than for core families with two wage earners. But it is also clear that they are blamed most of all for their limited availability for the labour market and for the market of volunteering. We should have no illusions about this. The ‘social innovation’ that many governments want to promote has less to do with car-sharing and recycling, than with child care, care for the elderly and disabled people. Women are the first candidates for this kind of ‘participation’ in social tasks that the public authorities do not want to pay for anymore. It is once again the non paid work of women that is needed to re-produce the economic system.


How can we react to this spiral of declining social policies?

The World has changed. We do not live in the societies of the end of the 19th century anymore, when workers had to fight for minimal rights. We do not live in the societies of the 1950s any longer, with hope for endless growth and protected national economies. Corporations, capital and people are mobile and migrants are trying all over the world to find better perspectives for themselves and their children.

The Member States of the European Union are still on number one in terms of social expenditures, but the social budgets are declining and social protection ‘cannot play it stabilising role anymore’.[38]

Something will have to change. The trade unions in the countries of the European Union are on the defensive and from this position there is little more they can do than defend a status quo. This is not enough. The European institutions and the majority of right wing and conservative parties want to impose even more austerity and fiscal constraint. What we need is a new alliance of parties, trade unions and other social movements. But most of all we need a new conceptual framework for social protection.

The proposals that are now being introduced are very divergent. Some groups want a kind of ‘basic income’ for all citizens, de-linking income completely from labour. But if one wants to have a basic income sufficient for a life in dignity, social protection mechanisms have to be dismantled, which would also mean trade unions lose their power to negotiate on wages and labour conditions.[39] Others also want to avoid more public policies and promote more self-reliance in a progressive framework, with democratic participation and solidarity at the local level. This implies community sense and connectedness, and one can wonder if this is easy to combine with super-diversity and the growing mobility of people. Still others are searching for more solidarity in the framework of ‘the commons’ or the ‘social commons’, giving a central role to individual and collective rights and a possibility to also protect societies themselves.[40] This could become a project for the protection of material and immaterial needs. Bread and roses, so to speak.

The only thing that should be clear at this moment is that social rights are being dismantled and that we urgently need a democratic debate in order to know which direction we want to take in order to protect and expand them.

Social movements have problems in looking beyond the national framework, whereas it should be clear to all that there is very little nation-states can still do on their own. If one country lowers taxes or dismantles social protection, this has immediate consequences in  neighbouring countries. Many movements are paralysed in an anti-European discourse and are calling for an ‘other Europe’, ‘social and democratic’. How to make these empty slogans concrete, remains to be seen. However critical we may be for the European institutions and however much other policies are demanded, we urgently need to reflect on how to better organise social protection, at what level(s) and with whom. What do we want to protect, for whom? What do we expect from the European Union, from national governments, from society? Very few proposals to-day really make the difference with what already exists.[41]

What we have witnessed these past years is a general attack on social and economic rights. After the periphery in the ‘third world’ and in Europe, even European core countries are now under attack. Austerity policies have started in the 1970s, but the theoretical framework for social policies was established in the nineties. The initiative came from global institutions who developed an ‘order of discourse’ on poverty and development, a discourse making clear what could be said and what could not be said about poverty and social protection. They established the new ‘truth’ on social policies. According to this discourse, poor people should get assistance from public authorities and from the market, whereas social security(insurances) is an exclusive task for markets. Individual responsibility again takes a central role, solidarity and redistribution disappear from the vocabulary. This ‘order of discourse’ may have been emitted by a transnational class, in the meantime it has become ‘common language’, globally, in different countries and for different social groups. Many people now honestly think this is the only possibility for the future, and even think they will have a better future themselves if they forget about cooperation and solidarity. If one looks in different countries to social proposals from rightwing and leftwing parties, one will see the differences are minor. They all adopted the new neoliberal philosophy. This is particularly dramatic in the case of social-democratic and green parties who sometimes think they can give a progressive turn to this new philosophy. But a decent social protection based on solidarity is incompatible with neoliberalism. Hence, it is not enough to have some concrete alternatives within this framework. What we need is an ideological shift, a struggle for a different discourse, for new ideas, for other values. Such as universalism, redistribution and solidarity. In the past, we called this ‘emancipation’.


Today, whether we look at the global level, at the European Union or at national States, we see one single logic defining our social protection, depriving it from its protective and emancipatory content. Resistance against this movement is urgent. We do not only need marginal improvements, but a radical new logic to give people more hope, based on a renewed solidarity, integrating the ecological dimension and progressively and democratically organised at multiple levels.

Social protection can be so much more than a tool to promote growth or to marginally correct a capitalist system. It does not have to be a tool for social peace. On the contrary, social protection can be a tool for political and social change. In other words, it can be transformative, which means it can deal with the root causes of poverty, inequality and social injustice. A return back to the welfare states of the past is impossible and not desirable. We have to reflect on a new model, that will almost automatically lead to an adaptation of our economic system, most probably in the direction of a social and solidarity economy, integrating environmental rights. This will require more participation and will lead to improvements of our democratic system. With a strong concept of social protection, it rapidly becomes clear we need systemic changes at the economic and political level. With its unique experience with welfare states, the European Union and its Member States offer an excellent framework to build such a concept and to give examples to the rest of the world. There is an important demand, all over the world. Because all people, wherever they live, in whatever country and with whatever political or economic regime, need protection. The world has changed, for sure, but some values, such as social justice and emancipation have not lost their relevance. We have to search for means and levels to make this come true. For leftwing and progressive parties, it is moreover an excellent tool for gaining new audiences.



[1] Eurostat, People at risk of Poverty or social Exclusion, December 2013.

[2] Foucault, M., L’ordre du Discours, Paris, Gallimard, 1971.

[3] Ontwerp van Overeenkomst tot sociale solidariteit’, 1944,

[4] Marshall, T.H., Class, Citizenship and Social Development, New York, Doubleday and Company, 1965; Ewald, F., L’Etat-Providence, Paris, Grasset, 1986; Castel, R., Les metamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique du salariat, Paris, Fayard, 1995.

[5] See, for example, Titmuss, R., Essays on the Welfare State, London, Unwin University Books, 1963.

[6] Offe, C., (ed. By Keane, J.), Contradictions of the Welfare State, London, Hutchinson & Co, 1984, p. 153.

[7] United Nations, Declaration on Development and Social Progress, Res. G.A. 2542 (XXIV) 11 December 1969.

[8] Pearson, L.B., Partners in Development, New York, Praeger Publishers, 1969.

[9] UNDP, Vaincre la pauvreté humaine, New York, 2000, p. 8, 40, 42.

[10] World Bank, World Development Report, The State in a Changing World, Washington, The World Bank, 1997.

[11] World Bank, From Safety Net to Springboard, Social Protection Sector Strategy, Washington, The World Bank, 2000.

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

[13] The Council of Europe has nothing to do with the European Union, but is the organisation created in 1949, having now 47 Member States. Its ‘Social Charter’ was adopted in 1961.

[14] Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, adopted at the Meeting of Heads of State and Government of 11 Member States, Strasbourg, 9 December 1989.

[15] Council Recommendations 92/441/EEC en 92/442/EEC of 24 june en 27 july 1992.

[16] Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 18 December 2000.

[17] Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, art. 9.

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

[19] European Commission , COM(2007)359 of 27 June 2007; COM (2006)708 of 22 November 2006; COM (2000) 379 of 28 June 2000; COM (2008)0412 of 2 July 2008.

[20] Judgments of the Court of Justice of the EU, 2007 and 2008.

[21] European Council, Conclusions of the Presidency, 17 Jun 2010.

[22]EAPN, Widening the Gap. EAPN Assessment of the National Reform Programmes 2013, Brussels, September 2013.

[24] European Council, Conclusions of the Presidency, 24-25 March 2011.

[25] ETUI, The Crisis and national Labour Law Reforms: a mapping exercise, Working Paper 2012.04.

[26] ETUI, Manifesto… Call on the EU to respect and promote fundamental social rights in particular in respect of all crisis related measures, .

[27] European Commission, Towards social investments for growth and cohesion, COM (2013)83 final, 20 February 2013.

[28] Morel, N., Palier, B., and Palme, J. (eds.), Towards a social Investment Welfare State?, Bristol, The Policy Pres, 2012.

[29] ETUI, The Euro Crisis and its impact on national and European social policies, Working Paper 2013.05.

[30] A ‘European social model’ has nothing to do with the European Union and its policies, but concerns the common characteristics or not of different models of welfare states in the EU’s member states.

[31] The main German theorist is Walter Eucken, who participated in  the Mont Pèlerin conference, but who took a different direction afterwards, searching for a middle way between nazism and socialism.

[32] Dardot,P. & Laval, C., La nouvelle raison du monde. Essai sur la société néolibérale, Paris, La Découverte, 2009, chap. 7; Joerges, C. and Roedel, F., « « Social Market Economy » as Europe’s Social Model ? », in Magnussen, L. and Strath, B. (Eds.), A European Social Citizenship ? Preconditions for future Policies from a Historical Perspective, P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2004.

[33] Eurostat, 2013, op. cit.

[34] ILO, Social Protection Floors Recommendation 2012 (No 202).

[35] World Bank, World Development Report 2014. Risks and Opportunities, Washington, The World Bank, 2013.

[36] 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.

[37] Since producers of medicines e.g. can obtain a possibility to contest government decisions in matters of public health, prices of medicines might rise instead of decline. See press briefing ETUC

[38] European Commission, Social Protection Budgets in the Crisis in the EU, Working Paper 1/2013.

[39] For a detailed analysis, see Mestrum, F., Social protection and basic income: competitors or allies?

[40] See different proposals on, ‘research’.

[41] See e.g. Nida-Rümelin, N. et al., We need a Europe that is truly Social and Democratic – The Case for a Fundamental Reform of the EU, Social Europe, Occasional Paper, November 2013; ETUI et al., Roadmap to a Social Europe, Brussels, 2013.

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