Social Europe

Coordinators: Claus Leggewie & Franziska Sperling, Germany  

Europe as a Social Union?

The reasons for the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarian nationalism is widely seen as a reaction against increasing social inequality within and between European countries. The “social question” is back in the form of stagnating real wages, exploding housing prices and deserted zones in deindustrialized regions. Nation states struggle with programs to fight these tendencies but the Gini inequality is still on the rise and for now, left-wing parties have not found more appropriate answers to the social crisis either.

In the European Union – although a single-currency area – unequal social standards, unequal wages, unequal tax systems and unequal rights exist next to each other. According to political scientists and economists, differing tax law and different social rights prove to be particularly problematic. Although the European Union offers a formal democracy, the social question remains unresolved and thus the promised equality of European society is yet to be achieved. The social problem of Europe is most clearly recognizable in the gap between urban and rural as well as central and peripheral areas. As a result, especially the rural and structurally weak regions of Europe (often referred to as globalization losers) are pushed into populism. Formal assertions to “take the people’s concerns seriously” have often demonstrated to be ultimately without consequences.

It is problematic that the social redistribution through the social insurance system, for instance, stays only within the nation states, as do wage-setting and the shaping of working conditions and labour law structures. Collaborative European actions on that matter have yet to be explored. How can we therefore promote the debate on social aspects or the “European pillar of social rights” in Europe? Thinking Europe through perspectives of social security and social justice facilitates an emphasis on assertive issues present in all EU member states.

One approach within that horizon could be a common European unemployment insurance scheme. For example, it could have absorbed the crisis in Greece and helped provide (local) structural changes. The other idea being discussed here is an unconditional basic income. Another concept that could be addressed is the prospect of European health care. While perspectives on a unified European health care system might not be feasible presently, approaches on that matter might be developed as a future task for the European Union.

A further approach would be a wider debate on the proposals for a Guaranteed Basic Income which is controversially discussed in social policy think tanks, parties (including the Liberals) and parliaments. Pilot projects have been initiated, what are possible outcomes and consequences?