Social Europe – back from death?

In their book Social Policy and the Eurocrisis: Quo Vadis Social Europe, Amandine Crespy and Georg Menz proclaimed in 2015 that "Social Europe is dead". Seven years later, Crespy's book The European Social Question – Tackling Key Controversies dives deep into the past, present, and future of the EU's social dimension – and finds some signs of life.

Research officer at the University of Tübingen, Germany

In their book Social Policy and the Eurocrisis: Quo Vadis Social Europe, Amandine Crespy and Georg Menz proclaimed in 2015 that “Social Europe is dead”. Seven years later, Crespy’s book The European Social Question – Tackling Key Controversies dives deep into the past, present, and future of the EU’s social dimension – and finds some signs of life.

In the grand scheme of things, the story of European integration sounds quite impressive. After centuries of war and division, the European peoples ‘united in diversity’ to overcome borders and foster prosperity. Six decades later they were even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for it. However, one allegation has continued to loom over the EU consistently to this day: the lack of a ‘human face’ in the form of a palpable social acquis. At least, this is how a common critique of the EU as a ‘neoliberal’ market-making project goes. From the eurozone crisis to Brexit, to the Covid-19 pandemic, the calls for a more ‘social Europe’ have become a staple in debates over the ‘ever closer union’. But is the EU really so weak on welfare? 

A European hamster wheel

Indeed, anyone turning to debates over ‘social Europe’ might quickly feel stuck in a hamster wheel of pledges of improvement, followed by technocratic reform procedures, and ultimately the persisting impression of stalemate. Getting a comprehensive grasp of the controversies that define and shape the EU’s social dimension can seem somewhat overwhelming – but it is precisely what Amandine Crespy sets out to do in her 2022 monograph The European Social Question – Tackling Key Controversies

Crespy is an associate professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and no stranger to the intersection of European integration and social policy: her research on the matter has influenced the field considerably over recent years through numerous must-read publications. They cover topics as diverse as EU action against inequalities, European federalism, and democratising the Economic and Monetary Union. In a nutshell, Crespy’s work is already a rich repository of knowledge on many things that matter for the EU’s social dimension.

The value of nuance

Crespy’s new book builds on this knowledge and makes the reader realise quite quickly that there is not simply ‘the one’ European social question. Rather, the book engages with various facets of a ‘social Europe’, spanning from the hurdles in its way, to past attempts to overcome them, to potential future solutions. 

The result is a thorough overview of all the details of European social policy. Importantly, Crespy avoids the overgeneralisation to which some debates on the EU’s social dimension fall victim. A proper European social acquis is neither deemed impossible, nor already in place. The EU is neither celebrated as a saviour in shining armour, nor as a ‘neoliberal’ enemy of the welfare state. Rather, Crespy embraces nuances in a refreshingly different approach.

She provides detailed discussions of the relationship between liberalisation and social cohesion, between economic and social policy, and between the EU and its member states. The book thus sensitises the reader to the fact that ‘social Europe’ is not a single, clearly defined end goal, but a much more complex concept. In line with this, Crespy clarifies from the outset that the European social question is not just an empirical one. Instead, the author embraces the normative dimension that is so easily overlooked in academic work – let alone in technical EU policy debates: “the complexity and diversity of European governance on social matters must not hide the fundamentally political, or even ideological, dimension of the project of a Social Europe and its evolutions” (37). 

This is not to say that The European Social Question is immune from the occasional excursion into sober EU jargon. Due to its attention to detail, the book can sometimes become rather technical, especially for newcomers to the topic. However, this is hardly avoidable for a scholarly piece on EU policy and integration. After all, the matter is highly complex, and any simplification would come at the cost of accuracy. In this field of tension, Crespy manages to strike a rare balance between detail and breadth. She provides just the right amount of information on each topic to convey the key information without becoming excessive. 

An EU unfit for purpose?

Through its differentiated approach, the book also challenges common assumptions such as the romanticisation of the ‘golden age of social Europe’ and the unconditional dedication of Social Democrats to its materialisation in the 1990s. This is not to diminish the contributions of the likes of Jacques Delors. Instead, it underlines that even during these good times, ‘social Europe’ faced great challenges, but that progress was achieved nevertheless. An optimistic proponent of a more substantial social dimension of the EU could read this as a reminder that today, too, change is possible.

Learning from past successes and failures of ‘social Europe’ alike, Crespy’s book offers various explanations for the current ‘social deficit’ of the EU (20). It discusses institutional asymmetries between economic and social integration, highlights the impact of ideas like the supremacy of economic imperatives and competitiveness, and outlines political factors such as blockages in the Council and a lack of EU legitimacy. Combined with material and social factors like strengthening capital interests over time, these insights help the reader understand the EU’s social reality – one that Crespy summarises as ””indirect”, ‘”but far from ‘irrelevant” (44). 

While this nuanced description is more generous to the EU than some other assessments of ‘social Europe’, it does not mean that Europe has reached a golden equilibrium of social policy integration. Many EU actions are considered “rhetorical ‘gestures” (188) accompanied by largely incremental change when it comes to more substantial resources. Accordingly, Crespy arrives at the crushing diagnosis that “the EU seems dramatically ill-equipped to deal with the challenges facing societies and states in an era of digitalisation, eroding social rights and ecological debate” (20). She therefore argues that “in the face of the sheer scale of the social issues at stake, it would be too optimistic to conclude that the EU is fit for purpose” (188). 

Bridging gaps

So, is all lost for ‘social Europe’? Not totally. The book’s historical perspective demonstrates impressively that the EU’s social dimension has already seen considerable development and that an unsatisfactory status quo need not imply insurmountable roadblocks. By delivering such clear insights based on detailed descriptions of the EU’s social acquis, The European Social Question speaks to diverse audiences. 

For scholars of ‘social Europe’, especially from the field of political science, this book joins the ranks of Crespy’s must-read publications. However, the book’s appeal goes much further. Related research often focuses on insular approaches that only examine politics, policies, or legal questions. By contrast, Crespy masterfully takes the different facets of ‘social Europe’ apart and brings them together in sophisticated ways that make this book relevant for economists, legal scholars, historians, and anyone interested in understanding European social integration. In short, The European Social Question is an impressive compendium of the past, present, and future of ‘social Europe’.

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