Cooled enthusiasm for the project of Social Europe
As 2015 turns into 2016, there should be little expectation of ‘business as normal’ in how we understand Social Europe and go about promoting it. Our sense of what we owe each other and should get from each other as citizens of the Union, the level and type of solidarity we want to see expressed in practical EU-level arrangements, have been profoundly shaken and remain in flux.
Three major developments have cooled enthusiasm for the project of Social Europe: first, the economic recession and its hugely asymmetric impacts on Member States’ societies; secondly, unresolved issues arising from the major enlargement of the Union that occurred since 2004; and thirdly, the implosion of societies on the Union’s external borders and the sheer numbers of refugees and economic migrants seeking security or a new life within it.
Tensions on building a social Europe
The plight of Greek society best exemplifies the differential impacts of the Great Recession. Even people who grasped the extent of the collapse in living standards and surge in destitution inside Greece asked themselves, ‘Is this my responsibility? ‘Unless and until the wealthy in Greece and Greek governments do more, why should resources leave my country which has poor people of its own?’ Member States are increasingly being held to account for how they manage their economies and contribute to the success of the Single Market. The dialogue which has opened up is robust. The Single Market itself is no longer taken for granted. Despite this new debate, there is less appetite among Member States for commenting on one another’s welfare state or social policies.
The fresh prospect of a UK withdrawal from the Union (‘Brexit’) and the extent of sympathy with some of Britain’s criticisms of the Union in other Member States exemplify the degree of unfinished business that still attends the enlargement of the EU from 18 to 28. It is not the number of states that is the issue but how enlargement increased the diversity in living standards, mainly, but in respect for the rule of law and capacity to enforce it also, across the Union. This has brought more nationals in the older Member States to ask themselves, ‘Is “citizenship” really the right word for what I share with everyone now in the Union? Is what I owe my national co-citizens at odds with what I am told I owe my EU co-citizens?’ A looser EU which has shed its commitment to an ‘ever closer Union’ strikes a deep chord with surprisingly large numbers in the Eurozone.
Neighbourhood is part of social Europe
The refugee crisis has had more than just one impact on how societies in the EU perceive themselves. The pressures generated inside Germany resulting from its initially generous welcome extended to refugees illustrate how the social collapse in Europe’s “neighbourhood” is capable of altering how people within the EU understand Social Europe. It has also changed what they are prepared to support in order to promote it. The spontaneous generosity, and bravery, of many in civil society, in Sicily and the Greek islands, at train stations in Vienna and Munich, etc., to what they saw before their own eyes, is both a ray of hope and a wake-up call for Social Europe.
More people are asking, ‘Is Social Europe too narrowly conceived and too narrowly focussed for the world we are in?’ ‘Should the Union’s neighbourhood policies not become central to the concept and mission of Social Europe?’ In a strange way, supporting Lebanon with its refugees may generate more energy and results than, for example, deepening peer assessment of national social inclusion policies.
Dr John Sweeney
For many years Senior Policy Analyst at Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council (NESC)