What if the European Union Were a Social Union?

“The EU needs a Social Union. It would serve as an effective container of already existing institutions, as a trampoline for further social integration. Voters would support this idea. And piecing it together would not be too demanding in institutional and practical terms.” Maurizio Ferrera, professor of political science at the University of Milan and visiting professor at the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies at Sciences Po, analyses crucial issues related to the European Social Union. Interview.

What actions has Europe taken in terms of social rights?

The EU already has a rather articulated “social acquis”, i.e. a set of binding laws (or more like directives) covering important aspects of employment (e.g. contracts, equal treatment, health and safety at work), collective labour relations (e.g. worker representation, information and consultation, collective redundancy, restructuring of enterprises) and social protection (e.g. parental leaves, cross-border social rights, occupational pensions). 
In addition, the EU formulates general principles and objectives (most prominently through Treaty norms but also through non-binding policy recommendations) and it facilitates the implementation of social rights at the national and local levels, by co-financing the instruments (infrastructures and services, e.g. through the European Social Fund) which allow citizens to concretely exercise their rights.  

The most recent and promising EU initiative has been the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR). This has fixed twenty principles in the area of equal opportunity and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, social protection, and inclusion. We could conceive of such principles as “manifesto rights: they proclaim that EU citizens have legitimate claims to social resources and opportunities and that public authorities have a duty to honour such claims.  In order for the twenty principles to become it justiciable rights, additional actions need to be taken by EU and national authorities.  

In the wake of the EPSR, the EU is currently working on two new directives: one on work-life balance rights, and the other on the right to have a written employment contract for atypical workers. The social acquis remains of course much weaker and more limited than the economic acquis. But there is more than meets the eye in what the EU does in the social sphere. 

What is the European Social Union that you are promoting? 

What I have in mind (together with other prominent colleagues) is a Union of national welfare states. Not a federal welfare state which centralizes social protection functions. Rather a broad institutional container for ordering, “systematizing” the variety of already existing institutions that cater to the social needs of EU citizens. 
According to the Treaties, the EU is primarily a Union of Social Values. The EPSR has now specified how such fundamental social values can translate in specific principles and then justiciable social rights. 

This is the overall container of ESU, which should gradually become harder from a legal point of view, more capable to provide overall policy guidance, more hospitable and supportive of novel trans-border social initiatives (e.g. between neighbouring regions) and more effective in coordinating the mobility of workers – pensioners, students, patients and so on.

The national welfare states would remain the key components of ESU. They would keep their legitimate diversities and remain free to decide the ways and means for implementing social provisions. At the same time they would commit to remain “open” to all EU citizens, to implement the EPSR, to pursue the common objectives and to engage in mutual policy coordination and a modicum of harmonization in order to achieve upward convergence.  

ESU should become the complement and counterpart of EMU. Its first priority should be a EU scheme against cyclical unemployment and an ambitious and properly funded budget for investing in social infrastructures and innovations. ESU and EMU should jointly step up the fight against harmful tax competition and recalibrate the Growth and Stability Pact. Structural reforms are as important as safeguarding the life chances of vulnerable groups.*

Could you tell us more about the European Solidarity Card that you are suggesting? 

Today citizens become aware of Social Europe mainly when they move across borders as students, patients, pensioners, job seekers and so on. A number of dedicated “cards” already exist for easing access to benefits and services in case of cross-border movements (e.g. health card, disability card, student card and so on). In principle all EU citizens are potential movers, but only tiny minorities do in fact move. 

EU social laws affect also the stayers, but only through the mediation of national governments. As mentioned above, however, the EU is also active in co-financing a variety of social programs that reach citizens, especially through the Social Fund. Take, for example, the Youth guarantee program, which could be supplemented in the future by other guarantees for childcare, training, work-family balance. The users and beneficiaries of such programs are not (necessarily) movers, but stayers: they receive resources and opportunities from the EU. Today they are poorly aware of the EU role.  Why not introduce an “EU solidarity card” (with a number identifier) available to all European citizens to enhance the visibility of (and also easing access to) the various privileges and services already provided by the existing EU programs for both movers and stayers? 

In the US the social security number is not only a prerequisite for most contacts with the public administration, but also a visible and tangible symbol of membership in the US legal – and citizenship – space. The European solidarity card could play the same role and  create greater “bonding” among citizens and between them and the EU as such.**

What are the challenges or obstacles facing the implementation of this union?

The obvious and greater obstacles are political. Why should national and EU leaders do it?  My first answer is that the EU is in dire need to revive citizen’s diffuse support. If mainstream leaders care about the Union’s durability, they should exploit all (responsible) ideas that have a re-legitimation potential. 

Public opinion surveys reveal that many European voters would support more supranational (EU) activism in directly providing social protection and even cross-national transfers. The eurosceptics  are intense and vocal protagonists of the current political scene, but they remain a minority. There is a “silent majority” out there of “euro-politan” voters who still support integration and express a demand for a more socially caring EU. I do believe that is this delicate juncture the ESU idea has a potential “political market”, it is now up to leaders to link up with such euro-politan majority. 

The initial steps of ESU are not very demanding in institutional terms. They have the advantage of being practical and can become operative without Treaty changes or major legislative innovations. Initially, a dedicated governance system (e.g. a Social Council, supported by an Agency of the European Social Union) would suffice to plan, coordinate, monitor and evaluate actions. 

National citizenship and welfare regimes were not born with a historical Bing Bang, but with a slow sequence of incremental reforms. ESU can be brought to life incrementally. Just announcing a political determination to move down this road, with a credible roadmap, would be a symbolic step that could re-frame the European narrative vis-à-vis citizens. Incrementalism can bring about important transformations. But only if it rests on visionary thinking, otherwise small steps become a purposeless and random walk, very likely to result in political failure.

* For a more detailed discussion of the ESU idea, see Ferrera 2018a.

**On EU social citizenship and the EU social or solidarity card, see Ferrera 2018b. A international debate on ESU and the EPSR – with articles and podcasts – is available online.

Interview by Andreana Khristova, Head of Development and Research Dissemination at LIEPP.

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