Reinventing a social democratic Europe: What can we learn from the weakness of ‘Social Europe’?

Policy Study


The purpose of this new paper in the FEPS YAN series is thus to take a step back and develop a critical understanding of the concept of ‘Social Europe’. The paper is divided into four sections, which look at ‘Social Europe’ in all its guises: as a historical process; as a political slogan; as a (failed) attempt to translate it into public policy; and as a complex topic in the public realm.


In the context of the current economic and political crisis, centre-left parties face the difficult task of reinventing a social democratic vision of European integration. Since the 1970s, and more prominently since the 1990s, the concept of ‘Social Europe’ has epitomised the social democratic vision of the European Union (EU), serving as a counterweight to the neoliberal bias of market building. It came to be both a political slogan for catalysing electoral support for European integration and a policy vehicle for the advancement of social and welfare policies at EU level. But in recent years, ‘Social Europe’ has failed to garner public support or recognition.

This slipping away of the vague “Social Europe” slogan comes at a time when the debt crisis and related austerity policies are hurting European citizens. The European Union is becoming an increasingly salient issue within domestic politics, with populists and sceptics increasingly making hay at its expense, and economic cleavages between Northern and Southern Europe opening up. The ‘permissive consensus’ for European integration is fast becoming a historical footnote. The implication is that it is imperative for centre-left parties to put forward a positive case for European integration and work on building coalitions for Europe, communicating Europe, and a new social democratic vision of Europe which builds over the weaknesses of the ‘Social Europe’ experience.

The purpose of this paper is thus to take a step back and develop a critical understanding of the concept of ‘Social Europe’. The paper is divided into four sections, which look at ‘Social Europe’ in all its guises: as a historical process; as a political slogan; as a (failed) attempt to translate it into public policy; and as a complex topic in the public realm. The first section provides a brief historical overview of the development of ‘Social Europe’ in the EU treaties since the late 1980s. The second section analyses how ‘Social Europe’ was used as a political slogan in election manifestos of several social democratic parties during the 2004 and 2009 European elections, thereby demonstrating how broad a concept ‘Social Europe’ has become. The third section investigates ‘Social Europe’ as a policy vehicle within the context of the regulation of services of general interest. The final section presents public opinion data, which allows us to understand the changing patterns of support for ‘Social Europe’ amongst the European electorate. In the concluding section we pull together our findings and provide some suggestions for the future success of the ‘Social Europe’ agenda of the centre-left.

Background about the FEPS Young Academics Network

The four authors of this study are : Laura BALLARÍN CEREZA, Amandine CRESPY, Marc ESTEVE DEL VALLE and Michael McTERNAN

They are members of the Young Academics Network (YAN) which was established in March 2009 by the Foundation of European Progressive Studies (FEPS) with the support of the Renner Institut to gather progressive PhD candidates and young PhD researchers, who are ready to use their academic experience in a debate about the Next Europe. The founding group was composed of awardees of the “Call for Paper” entitled “Next Europe, Next Left” – whose articles also help initiating the FEPS Scientific Magazine “Queries”. Quickly after, with the help of the FEPS member foundations, the group enlarged presently incorporating around 30 outstanding and promising young academics.

FEPS YAN meets in the Viennese premises of Renner Institut, which offers great facilities for both reflections on the content and also on the process of building the network as such. Both elements constitute mutually enhancing factors, which due to innovative methods applied makes this Network also a very unique project. Additionally, the groups work has been supervised by the Chair of the Next Left Research Programme, Dr. Alfred Gusenbauer who at multiple occasions joined the sessions of the FEPS YAN, offering his feedback and guidance.

This paper is one of the results of the second cycle of FEPS YAN, (the first one ended with three papers in June 2011), in which 5 key themes were identified and are being currently researched by FEPS YAN working groups. These topics encompass: “Education, Labour and Skills”, “Economic governance in the EU”, “Migration and Reassessment of integration models”, “Youth unemployment” and “Social Europe and public opinion”. Each of the meetings is an opportunity for the FEPS YAN to discuss the current state of their research, presenting their findings and questions both in the plenary, as also in the respective working groups. The added value of their work is the pan-European, innovative, interdisciplinary character not to mention, that it is by principle that FEPS wishes to offer a prominent place to this generation of academics, seeing in it a potential to construct alternative that can attract young people to progressivism again. Though the process is very advanced already, the FEPS YAN remains a Network and hence is ready to welcome new participants.

FEPS YAN plays also an important role within FEPS structure as a whole. The FEPS YAN members are asked to join different events (from large Conferences, such as FEPS “Call to Europe” or “Renaissance for Europe” and PES Convention to smaller High Level Seminars and Focus Group Meetings) and encouraged to provide inputs for publications (i.e. for FEPS Scientific Magazine “Queries”). Enhanced participation of the FEPS YAN Members in the overall FEPS life and increase of its visibility remains one of the strategic goals of the Network for 2013.

See the first paper – The European Youth Guarantee: a reality check

See the second paper – How Eurobonds Relate to European Integration

See the third paper – Fixing the Broken Promise of Higher Education in Europe

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