Revisiting Europe’s social promise

Article published in Policy Network, 03/06/2014


The EU is a ‘risk community’ – a space for governing the common risks its member confront, threats that can be better faced together. Protecting Europeans citizens in the face of economic globalisation requires coordinating areas of social policy


European integration is a history of promises, explicit or taken for granted. Europeans have accepted successive institutional modifications and cultural transformations implied by the integrative process because they associate these changes with a series of common benefits: peace and security, a single market (with the creation of the euro as its greatest innovation), the consolidation of European democracies, especially in the south and in the east, and the attempt to assert itself as a global power.

Nevertheless, these promises have currently expired and the success of a good number of them is precisely what now makes them useless for legitimation. The achievement of a lasting peace may have allowed the EU to achieve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, but it will no longer help it attract new members or encourage new steps toward integration.

The need for a new social promise

We only have the social promise — which has always been present in the integrative project, but is insufficiently realised and currently broken — if we want to provide European institutions with legitimacy and acceptance. Without them, Europe cannot confront its future challenges.

In recent years, we have worried more about the democratic deficit than about policies. It is not that democratic challenges are unimportant, but that the social construction of Europe is essential to ensure popular acceptance. The problem is determining the extent to which, and the conditions under which, the EU can configure itself as a post-national alternative to the policies of the welfare state.

The only source of functional legitimacy that Europe retains is a new equilibrium between the political, social, and economic at a time when we have a runaway economy and ineffectual policies. We have successfully used integration to make war in Europe seem far-fetched, but we have not been able to harness the economic dynamics unleashed with market liberalisation. It would be a question of reconciling economic and political rationality rather than simply trying to adapt policies to economic reality. This would be possible if we made economic prosperity go hand in hand with social inclusion. Europe needs a social and caring dimension if it wants to once again count on broad sectors of public support.

A post-national welfare state

The task is to attain a post-national version of the welfare state, which does not mean replacing the nation state’s functions on a European scale, or merely coordinating self-sufficient systems of protection and redistribution. We will need large-scale social innovations for this to happen because we do not know how these functions can be carried out in a new context, and what narrative can be put in place to gather citizen support.

The required solidarity is both a resource and a result. In other words, both a reality that precedes its institutional form and a result of the institutions that should produce it. In the midst of this paradox, we must start working to produce something we still do not have and that cannot be conceived of as the automatic result of institutional mechanisms.

What narrative can we elaborate in order to galvanise identification with European integration, its constraints, and its opportunities? We do not seem to be in any position to generate ‘master narratives’, and we will likely have to trust in stories less epic than those that legitimised the nation building of modernity.

The EU as a ‘risk community’

Among the possibilities we have before us, I believe the consideration of the EU as a ‘risk community’ is the most adequate. Contemporary societies — and in a very particular fashion, European societies — produce social, economic, and ecological risks, and those societies should be organised in such a way that these risks can be managed jointly. This is particularly necessary in areas characterised by complexity and the density of interdependencies, where the limits of sovereign action are more obvious. The European Union can be understood as a space for governing the risks that its members confront. A risk community implies the recognition that there are similar threats to be faced that can only be confronted together.

The economic aspects of globalisation — from financial volatility to market pressures and transformations in the workplace — currently play a noteworthy role in the perception of such risks. In fact, the single currency, whose flaws and insufficiencies are more apparent to us after the financial crisis, is a regional response to the international monetary confusion. The euro was designed to provide stability that would benefit all Europeans.

Tackling perceptions of an anti-social EU

Although we have a rudimentary social model and although the ability to harmonise different social policy models is limited, the EU must secure effective mechanisms of social protection. Due to the measures adopted to confront the economic crisis, general public perception is that the EU is an inhospitable place, which nurtures the view that social protection can only be provided by autarchic nation-states.

The European conundrum has made visible a peculiar divide between the national welfare state and European economic liberalism. While the first establishes a redistributive relationship between its members, the second appears to be responsible for an impulse towards greater economic competition, destabilising states’ social achievements.

It is difficult to counter this perception by recalling, for example, that a significant number of domestic redistribution cases have come about because of European law or by outlining the social situation in which we would find ourselves if the European Union did not exist. We do not have a captivating narrative that would allow us to magically change public perception. Nevertheless, it is possible to do something to modify what is a gross simplification.

We can begin by recalling the limitations regarding social politics that nation states would have even if the European Union did not exist. Even the largest states are too small to guarantee security and welfare under the conditions of globalisation. It is true that European institutions do not have the power or the mechanisms to interfere in people’s welfare, but member states draw up and implement their policies in a framework of supranational laws and institutions.

A new social role for Europe

Given member states limitations when it comes to social policies, we can formulate the European social promise in a way that generates realisable expectations. Europe is well-suited to protect its citizens in the face of economic globalisation. Doing so requires coordinating areas of social policy in which we can identify positive effects.

Miguel Maduro has proposed a European social model in which the EU would not establish or exercise a redistributive role but would only serve as a norm or yardstick for the protection of social systems on a national level. In fact, it is highly likely that the survival of the welfare state on the national level will depend on some type of transnational welfare regime in the future.

It seems inopportune to say this now, in the face of evidence that our democratic procedures and social protection systems are being weakened, but it is rigorously certain if we place things within their spatial and temporal context: neither democratic values nor demands for social cohesion are achievable outside of the risk community that is the European Union.




Instituto de Gobernanza Democrática
Instituto de Gobernanza Democrática
RSS a Opinión
RSS a Opinión