What kind of social Europe should we aim for?

To bring support towards Social Europe, it must be a horizontal strategy upholding social outcomes.


To bring support towards Social Europe, it must be clear that it does not imply EU social policies, but rather a horizontal strategy upholding social outcomes. Focusing on a Social Europe, broadly defined as measures supporting social outcomes and social investment, can actively temper the economic, social and political crises at the same time.


The promise of a Union endowed with a social triple A has gone largely unattended. The European Pillar of Social Rights is not going to deliver a Union where social and economic outcomes are targeted with the same priority and it is therefore worth asking what is next for a European social agenda. Especially in view of the campaign for the 2019 European elections, given that concern for social fairness is one of the key issues distinguishing progressive from liberal and conservative forces, one may well expect the agenda for a more social Europe to be a cornerstone of the European progressive platform.

Too often the idea of Social Europe is misinterpreted as a shift of social policy from member states to the EU level. It should instead be clear that a Social Europe does not mean European social policies, but rather upholding social outcomes in all domains of EU intervention. It is fairly evident that the EU will not have a single welfare model for the years to come; the concept of a single European social model itself does not reflect the realities of European integration.

Too often the idea of Social Europe is misinterpreted as a shift of social policy from member states to the EU level.

Social Europe should not be seen as a set of specific policies or laws in the social sphere but rather as a strategy that addresses social outputs and embraces social objectives as a core part of every EU policy intervention. Art. 9 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) gives social objectives the special status of horizontal goals to be pursued in the definition and implementation of all EU policies and activities. Along these lines, the concept of Social Europe chimes with Juncker’s vision, announced before the European Parliament ahead of his nomination, when he declared that he was aiming for a Union with a “social triple-A rating”.

However, it does not correspond to the logic behind the European Pillar of Social Rights which, as a pillar, completely neglects the horizontal nature of social goals. An agenda for Social Europe implies making social objectives central in the deepening of the single market – digital single market, energy union, capital markets union – in the reform of the EU budget as well as, of course, in the economic governance. An integrated approach that reconciles social and economic objectives should be the backbone of a progressive strategy for Europe.

Social Europe means first and foremost having better social outcomes in what the EU does.

In this context, the relevance of a push towards Social Europe should not be dramatically affect- ed by the discussion on the future of Europe. There is space for a more social Europe whatever scenario the EU will embark. Social Europe means first and foremost having better social outcomes in what the EU does.

How can Social Europe help solve EU crises?

The polycrisis in Europe has three main dimensions: i) an economic crisis due to weak growth and lack of competitiveness vis-à-vis re- shaping global markets; ii) a social crisis, linked to impoverishment brought about by the economic downturn, increasing divergence between member states and in-equalities within member states in terms of well-being; iii) a political crisis largely due to a trust issue, increasing disaffection for the European project and institutions. Even though Social Europe should not be a seen as a silver bullet, a strategy based on social outcomes and investment can actively contribute to mitigate the three crises at the same time.

It is quite self-evident that a Social Europe strategy should help reignite the ‘convergence machine’ that promoted shared prosperity for decades around Europe. Conceptually, the hard step to make is to move from “evidence shows that high inequality is bad for growth”, a notion that is by now rather accepted among ex- perts, to “social outcomes and fairness are good for growth”. The economic value of certain social spending is often not accounted for; it does not necessarily mean more EU funds, but rather a framework that facilitates productive social spending at national and subnational level.

It is quite self-evident that a Social Europe strategy should help reignite the ‘convergence machine’ that promoted shared prosperity for decades around Europe.

A Social Europe supporting social investment may contribute to economic growth through two channels: 1) through a more skilled, resilient and motivated workforce that enhances productivity and 2) through more inclusive labour markets, which sustain public finances.

At the same time, trust could be dealt with, at least partly, if the Union were to do something con- crete for its citizens. If the latter perceive that polices addressing their wellbeing come first in the agenda of EU institutions, populism and Euroscepticism may be contained and social and political tensions reduced. Research shows that active participation in the labour market and higher levels of education are associated with higher levels of trust in political institutions. A push on activation policies and human capital can therefore be functional to restore trust.

In spite of the gravity of the crises, consensus on Social Europe is yet to be found. Why are the benefits of a Union that moves ‘Social’ are so much underrated?

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