A solution to save Social Europe by going back to the Member States is the key message of a recent contribution by Paul de Beer. Reading the “Roadmap to a Social Europe”, which shows a maze on its cover, he gets the impression that not so much is clear in the vision of Social Europe. Indeed to strive for Social Europe is quite a challenge in these times, but primarily it is an intellectual challenge. For some decades, since the discussion about the social dimension of Europe started, there have always been diverging views on the social objectives of the EU.
The confrontation of ideas was part of the struggle for a better and more social Europe. Such a confrontation of ideas (often between left and right) is normal at national level but it works quite differently in the European debate: First, there simply is no notion such as “social France”, “social Germany”, “social Poland” etc., which constitutes a first difficulty and a first challenge. Secondly, the notion of left and right is more ambiguous, as the European governance system is more consensual than confrontational: In the Commission, consensus is the main method, in the European Parliament a coalition of the big parties finds a consensus on most of the topics.
At national level, there is no single vision on the future of social policy that all agree upon. It is the confrontation of social visions which is at the core of the democratic battle, and in many countries it might be quite difficult to find a common basis for existing social visions. However, at European level there has been a long-standing tradition of a European social policy agenda. Part of this agenda were items which were consensual and others which were not. Beyond the agenda, there has always been a discussion on whether the agenda was ambitious enough and most critics put forward alternative ideas – more ambitious proposals to push social policy forward. It has never been easy to agree on a common progressive platform which is a major challenge and much more complicated and complex at the European level than at the national level as it is a confrontation of more and different actors: national and European actors, European networks, NGO’s, trade unions, political party networks, think tanks etc.
In general the advocates of a (more) Social Europe left it to the nationalists to declare that it is up to the state to define the shape and limits of social policy. It would not only be an uphill battle but a defensive and losing battle to try to innoculate the national social framework against European intrusion. The image of a national garden which can be isolated and protected against globalisation and Europeanisation is a long way from reality. Even if the European left agreed on this and tried to block European interference, it would be impossible as most of the economic actions undertaken by the Commission have social implications.
Social Europe In The National Framework Won’t Work
Therefore it is misleading to think that the “most social outcome for the EU as a whole” is to give power back to the Member States and allow them to decide, ”how to shape their social policies and what price they are willing to pay for it”. Interestingly, the price for social policy is added in this sentence as an economic criterion for social policy. So, economic dominance over social issues is reintroduced through the back door. There must be other ways to bring an end to the subordination of social to economic topics.
Neither Barroso nor Van Rompuy are right when they declare that the European Treaties are social in themselves. The feeling that more must be done motivated the European Council of December 2012 to promise “in close cooperation” with the Commission a “roadmap” on “the social dimension of the EMU, including social dialogue” to the “June 2013 European Council”. This Commission contribution was delayed to October 2013 and the content was unusually unambitious. The least that can be said is that the European Council of December 2012 raised expectations, which were not fulfilled. The “too little too late” Commission communication on the social dimension ran short of expectations and did not put forward substantive social action to counter the social crisis.
It is a pity that the Commission no longer has a social agenda of its own. For many years the European trade union movement has criticised the Commission for having simply abandoned the social agenda. The overall impression is that the REFIT agenda has the side-effect – intended or unintended – of a kind of anti-social agenda. In this context it came quite as a surprise when Commissioner Andor recently declared that Europe is being threatened by “welfare chauvinism”. Isn’t it rather the poisonous mix of mass unemployment, economic stagnation, deindustrialisation, stagnating regulation of financial markets, rising poverty, growing inequalities, ongoing austerity and Troika policy in combination with the regular banking bailout, a new permanent feature of modern financial capitalism, which is creating an explosive situation?
Mass unemployment, with more than half of young people unemployed in some countries, is the general background for nationalistic reactions. The people see that what worked in the past (for instance a devaluation) is no longer an option and they blame the Euro for that missing link to re-establish the situation (wrongly, but that’s how it works…); and so they combine nationalism, nostalgia and anti-European feelings. European inaction or “too little too late” in order to bring forward efficient regulation of the financial markets and re-establishing just taxation feed into anti-European feelings.
As long as the financial industry is getting subsidies and does not contribute to pay for their failures, many people will remain sceptical vis-à-vis “Europe”. The total cash equivalent transfer from taxpayers to the financial sectors between 2008 and 2012 amounts to 1,839.5 billion Euros or 14.2% of 2012 GDP (Benchmarking Working Europe 2014, page 7). The impression that a new crash occurring these days would – at least in Europe – lead to a complete financial and economic disaster feeds into frustration. The conclusion of this cursory analysis leads to the need for a much more complex and differentiated package of action than the one-size-fits-all austerity approach. It is too easy to blame a lack of European spirit for the difficult situation Europe is in. It is no solution but an illusion to think that the way back behind national frontiers could be of any help or bring a solution.