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The End of Welfare States?


In this guest blog, Francine Mestrum, Network Coordinator for Global Social Justice, discusses the European Council’s recent meeting in June 2013, where social protection is seen as a tool to develop human capital and drive economic growth- Is this the end of the welfare state in Europe?

In December 2012, the European Council – the meeting of 27 national governments with the European Commission – decided to further examine the ‘social dimension’ of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). After the Council meeting of the 27th and 28th of June 2013, those who thought this might be a step in the direction of the so often claimed ‘social Europe’ must be very disappointed.

The European Council only confirmed a ‘recommendation’ to the Member States that had already been adopted by national governments, in order to fight youth unemployment. It means that young people who do not find a job have to receive within four months an offer for either a quality job, a training or an apprenticeship. The importance of such a measure should not be underestimated, but it is not legally binding.

This lack of political will and the continuing focus on austerity policies is particularly bad news for all people in the European Union.

According to the most recent report of the European Commission, unemployment in the EU stands at 10.8 % and at 11.9 % in the Eurozone. Nearly 6  million young people have no job. In Spain and Greece youth unemployment stands at more than 55 %. More and more families live in financial stress and do not know how to survive. They have more and more debts. Almost one quarter of the EU population lives with a risk at poverty. Emigration within and without the EU is growing.

In spite of these social problems – or even a humanitarian crisis in southern EU-countries – most governments continue to reduce their social expenditures. Today, social protection does not play its role of ‘economic stabiliser’ anymore. Even wages are falling and labour markets are made flexible.

Nevertheless, what the ‘social dimension’ of the EMU will mean is that social expenditures will become part of the European ‘Semester’ and fall under the surveillance of the European Commission. They will follow the logic that was announced in the ‘Social Investment’ package of last March, which means that the objective of social protection becomes the development of human capital and the promotion of growth. It is social protection at the service of the economy.

We should not blame ‘Europe’ for these developments, since all our governments are following exactly the same logic, very often long before the European Commission puts its proposals on paper. The ‘enemy’ then should not be an institution,  but an ideology that destroys societies, that bans redistribution and solidarity from its discourses and makes a dogma of competitiveness. This could be the deathblow to the ‘European social model’.

In the end, these policies may also threaten democracy.

It is particularly ironic that this happens at a moment when international organisations – including the European Commission – are promoting ‘social protection’ in third world countries.

What we need, in Europe and in the rest of the world, are legally binding standards to protect people and to protect societies. All people need protection, in whatever political regime they are living. And the best protection is a system of social, economic and solidarity rights.

What we also need, in view of the changing world and social needs of people, is to re-think our social protection, in order to improve it, make it more coherent and more participative.

To this end, we think it might be useful to change the concept of ‘social protection’ into ‘social commons’, in order to focus on what we all share and on what we should try to preserve: the life and survival of humankind and of the planet.

Visit here for an e-book on ‘re-thinking social protection’ and a proposal for ‘social commons’. 

For a related blog on welfare states please visit here.

About the author

Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences, development studies. Her research topics are social development, poverty, inequalities and social protection. She was lecturer at the universities of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels (ULB). She coordinates the network of ‘Global Social Justice’, working on the promotion of transformative universal social protection and the Common Good of Humanity. She is a member of the ‘CentreTricontinental’, Louvain-la-Neuve) and of the International Council of the World Social Forum. She published various books in Dutch, French and English on development and development cooperation, poverty and international taxes.


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