Perspectives: The Brussels Bubble

Social Cohesion and Inequalities

Amandine Crespy: Social Europe remains a promise

The issue of Social Europe is taken up in election campaigns to the European Parliament. In this context, is Social Europe more of a promise or a specific model?  

I think what we call “Social Europe” remains a promise in the sense that many citizens are dissatisfied with the way social policies are implemented. Many European citizens also believe that the social dimension in shaping the policies of the European Union (EU) has not been sufficiently developed over the years and needs to be strengthened.

Although there are already many different policy tools and resources targeting social issues, Social Europe remains an idealistic concept, without any indications that it is moving towards a specific direction.


Has this always been the case?

If we take a brief look at history, already from the 1980s – and probably even earlier for many – it was quite clear that Social Europe was never about building a European welfare state.

The nature of the work and the responsibilities of the EU are very different from those of the welfare systems of the member-states, as it is based much more on a framework of regulations rather than the distribution of resources themselves. Therefore, the work of the EU is very different from what the member-states do in terms of welfare policies and social policies.


Even if the EU is, as you say, a framework of regulations, what could it do to improve its policies for Social Europe?

I believe that what the EU can or should do – and to some extent it is already doing – is to address issues that are purely European, concerning economic integration and the completion of the single market. A characteristic example would be what we call social dumping. Within the framework of the freedom of movement of people, goods, and services, workers can move between different countries that have very different social standards and wage levels, where there is already a whole mechanism of rules and provisions for the protection of labor, especially for workers coming from countries with low-income levels. The different levels of regulation create problems and inequalities, which we see both with European citizens and with citizens of third countries, outside the EU, who are seeking employment in a member-state. Therefore, the first issue is for the EU to try to solve the problems and obstacles to labor market integration as a whole.

A second issue is how we can make the EU address the inequalities between member states and societies, by supporting those member-states that need it most; those member-states that do not have the resources because their economy is weaker for structural reasons or because of a very unfair tax system that leaves little public revenue for the state to essentially cover policy gaps related to the fight against inequalities. In this area, the EU has taken more steps, especially through the NextGenerationEU financial instrument, where we see new funds being directed, for example, to social investments.

NextGenerationEU is a significant new source of funding to support those member-states that have emerged from austerity and are experiencing its harsh consequences. It also supports governments that want to invest in policies transitioning from an ecological perspective, as well as in social investments, improving welfare policies and employment search services or lifelong learning services.


Is there one or multiple interpretations of what exactly “Social Europe” means?

I believe that from different political perspectives, the EU is either used to showcase what is undesirable, an anti-model if you will, or to provide hope for a better future. I don’t know exactly what Social Europe signifies for right-wing political parties, but what I do know is that they employ a welfare chauvinism, if you will, which opposes the fundamental freedoms of the EU and the “closing off” of the labor market to third-country nationals. This is an empty and unjust Social Europe, I would say.


What about the center-left and left-wing parties?

I think for center-left and left-wing parties, things are different. There is hope that the EU will contribute to addressing these issues, such as social dumping and inequalities, which are very difficult to address at the national level. Most center-left and left-wing parties are very supportive of redistributing resources among member-states through specific means and tools, as well as the EU budget, but at the same time, especially radical left parties, are very cautious about the fact that sometimes the EU can play a negative role in addressing these issues.

A specific example is the flexicurity policy, which combines flexibility in the labor market without sacrificing the concept of security, of job security. It is a policy that builds on the Scandinavian and Dutch models, a progressive approach that seeks to combine labor market flexibility with a high degree of income protection and training for workers. This model has worked quite well in these countries; however, the way it has been used by employers or implemented in countries like France, Italy, Spain, or Portugal has changed the very nature and content of labor flexibility, simply creating more flexibility for economic actors without providing a decent level of security for workers.

At the same time, there is a skepticism within the left-wing political spectrum that the EU constitutes a battleground for political conflict, that it is a field of political competition. Parties in this space tend to support the argument that the EU should have more powers and resources to invest in social policy only if it is certain from the outset that its role will be positive in their view and that there will be no negative aspects to this policy. Decisions of the EU Court have also been challenged, especially those that prioritize the economic freedoms of the EU over national policies and regulations. And not without reason, I would say in many cases, as it is empirically proven that the EU weakens the protection and social regulations that still exist at the national level. This is a major challenge for the EU, but also for the left forces more specifically. 


After all, how do you access the progress of the European Pillar of Social Rights so far?

It was a good move promoted by Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of a European Commission that was committed to the implementation of this Pillar. There was a willingness to move forward after a decade of austerity that did not help restart the European economy and caused hardship for many Europeans. The Pillar was a political message, and today’s European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen has tried to make its impact tangible in European societies.

In this context, the European Commission has undertaken a series of legislative initiatives, such as the Directive on the balance between professional and personal life or the Directive on the minimum wage, as well as other similar initiatives.


Are there any unclear or problematic points in the implementation of the above Directives, or is everything going well?

A lot has happened under the “banner” of the European Pillar of Social Rights, possibly more in these five years than in the previous fifteen, but there are two issues on which I would like to insist a little more: the first is that if you look at the outcome of the Directives in the member-states, what they left behind, there is a great risk of concluding that it is more of a symbolic policy. The problem is that EU policy always involves compromises with many different actors with different preferences and policies; in some cases, we have national elections that create more political obstacles to a more progressive reform at EU level and therefore what remains in terms of policy making is not significant in substance for workers. I really see the risk of there being concessions in the policies of the Pillar, a gap being created between policy negotiations and the real impact of policy choices – a gap that seems to be widening.

The second issue I see is that this revival of the social policy agenda is a temporary situation, a somewhat ephemeral window of opportunity. Many people expect a backlash wave of the conservative right and the far-right in the European Parliament elections. This will shift both the European Parliament and the European Council, the two co-legislators, further to the right, which means that any significant initiative for a more Social Europe will “die.” This concern is real in policy-making circles in Brussels, with many believing that we have until the end of February to push through whatever we can, because if any policy related to Social Europe fails now, there is a high chance that it will never be on the table again, at least not in the near future.


Regarding the field of legislation, we have the European Parliament and the European Commission as two legislative bodies, while we also have the European Council. How has the dynamic between these three bodies evolved over the past five years?

I would say that the European Commission and the European Parliament, whenever they have been in the hands of progressive forces, have shown signs of favoring policies that enhance social cohesion. These two bodies function as agenda-setters, and we have seen this in the past few years. The Parliament has approved a series of reports on various social issues, also pressuring the European Commission to take action.

What is not new is that the European Council is always the institutional body that obstructs or delays developments for various reasons. The first reason is that it is always difficult for national governments to delegate powers, duties, and resources at the European governance level, so there is this natural reluctance to leave untouched the fields of national competencies and not to trust the EU as the best level to address social issues. However, the most significant issue is that the Council is often divided, primarily politically, with left and right-wing governments competing, and when it is not necessarily divided, it leans more towards the right with more liberal and conservative parties in governments that do not necessarily support Social Europe.

Finally, there is always division regarding the net contributions to the EU budget, which is evident in a range of policies. Contributors are always more reluctant to put more money into the common pot to fuel European policies. We saw this happening also in the negotiations for the Climate Social Fund, where more common resources for redistribution among member- states were sought. Germany, for example, a progressive and advanced member-state concerning the green transition, considering the entire agenda for a fair transition, is concerned about the entire Fund’s scope. Along with other member-states, it has played a quite critical role in the effort to limit the scope and policies of the Fund. However, such conflicts arise constantly, are common at the European level, and justify what we mentioned above about the different actors of policymaking at the EU institution level.

*Amandine Crespy is Professor in Political Science and EU Studies at CEVIPOL (Centre d’études de la vie politique), Institute of European Studies, ULB. 

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