Can and Should the EU do more to tackle social inequality within and among member countries? That’s the question.

Amandine Crespy asks if the EU has served to enhance social cohesion on the continent, and whether or not it should do in the future.  

Europe remains one of the most developed and wealthiest regions in the world, and is the birthplace of institutionalized welfare states. And yet, one in five people – over 92.4 million or 21.1 per cent of the population, including 19.4 million children – are at risk of poverty in the European Union (EU), an exceedingly high number for developed country standards, as noted by Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Inequalities within but also across EU member countries have persisted, if not increased, contradicting the objective of engineering upward convergence in welfare across Europe.

Does the EU, therefore, really serve serves to enhance social cohesion at the scale of the continent? And should, moving forward, the competences of the EU in the field be enhanced or, on the contrary, curtailed? These are questions I tackle in my latest book The European Social Question. Tackling Key Controversies (Agenda, 2022). To be clear, the European social question is not about whether European societies are suffering from serious social issues (the assumption being that they do), but whether the EU does, can or should do something about it.

Contentious debates around the European social question have only intensified with the turn of the twenty-first century. Unprecedented territorial enlargement made the EU more heterogeneous than ever, while concurrently we saw a historic deepening of its policies and institutions as the effects of the monetary union were coming of age. The lines dividing Europeans were further exacerbated under the influence of external events and self-inflicted problems, plunging the EU in an era of crises. The weak legitimacy of the EU polity, the financial and debt crisis from 2008–10, the exit of the UK from the EU, and the COVID-19 pandemic all have their roots in the European social question. And, in turn, these developments also had a major (mainly negative) impact on social cohesion in Europe.

The way the EU has responded to these challenges has further fed into controversies on what exactly is wrong with the EU social dimension and how it can be fixed. Broadly speaking, observers and academics have argued that either EU social policy is irrelevant and too weak compared to the sheer scale of the problems, or, on the contrary that ‘Social Europe’ is consistently catching up as the EU is slowly building up its regulatory and financial capacity to address social issues. Radical critcs, however, argue that the EU has proved mostly dangerous for welfare states and social cohesion because it has systematically subjected social policy concerns to the imperatives of market expansion and fiscal discipline.

In the book I chart what policy tools are available, and what political confrontations at stake, and what the role of various actors is across the various domains of EU action in the social realm. These range from regulation and case law, over liberalization policy, the European social dialogue, the soft coordination of national policies through frameworks such as the European Semester, to the redistribution of money from the EU budget, especially through the European Social Fund.

In the picture that emerges from my analysis, it is undeniable that social policy at the EU level arose out of a necessity to accompany market making. Addressing social issues at EU level, be it by coordinating social security across borders or limiting social dumping, has often been an afterthought, serving to allow and legitimize market expansion and financial integration. Overall, EU social policy making remains piecemeal and insufficiently effective in balancing the social issues arising with transnational market making.

This, however, does not mean that that the EU social policy is doomed to be “anti-social” as the trajectory of Social Europe is not linear. Even if economic freedoms carry constitutional value in the EU Treaties, this does not, in any deterministic way, have to lead to inertia, or irrelevance, in the social realm. Battles of ideas, the contingency of events, and the mobilisation of actors remain tremendously important.

After ten years of “muddling through” the protracted recession ensuing from the 2008 financial crisis, the political revolt against austerity in various parts of Europe has led EU decision makers to relaunch the social policy agenda of the Union. The European Pillar of Social Rights has catalysed a number of initiatives attempting to address new social risks, including directives on adequate minimum wages or on improving the working conditions of people working in the platform economy.

The social question is tremendously important when it comes to sustaining the legitimacy of the EU as a centre of political authority. Gone are the days when leaders could argue that “Europe” was there to boost the economy while national states would care for social cohesion. In the face of today and tomorrow’s challenges, be they Brexit, health policy after Covid-19, or the just transition to a green economy, the EU seems able to define and assert a positive agenda, but ill-equipped to fully address the pressing problems.

Ultimately, in order for the EU to tackle today’s acute social question, a major democratic turn is required. This would need to involve an intellectual and practical elaboration of social citizenship at European scale.

Amandine Crespy is Associate Professor in Political Science and EU Studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB)  and a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. Her book The European Social Question. Tackling Key Controversies is available now with Agenda publishing.

Photo by Ev on Unsplash.

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