Faultlines in Europe - European Social Model in Future

3. To what extent is the European Social Model and/or Neighbourhood Policy a utopian object(s) that we can not realistically expect to achieve complete equality and cohesion inside the EU, let alone outside, largely because of competing visions of ‘welfare’?

Answer with reference to lectures 8, 9 and 10 and their related readings.


With the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) signed in Maastricht in 1992, the European heads of state established a European Monetary Union to face the challenges of globalization. While this undoubtedly helped Europe advance in competitivity, it has prompted the concern that social policy would only be “subordinate to economic policy and the dominant economic values” (Beck, 1997, p. 4). However, in order to achieve a “Eurotopia”, economic growth and social provision have to work hand in hand. Political analysts have therefore put forward a “European Social Model” which may reconcile economic and social policy. In the “White Paper on Social Policy” of 1994, the Commission defines the European Social Model as a “set of common values, namely the commitment to democracy, personal freedom, social dialogue, equal opportunities for all, adequate social security and solidarity towards the weaker individuals in society” (Jepsen & Serrano Pascual, 2005, p. 234; de Ruiter, 2008, April). While this definition remained rather broad, in the IGC following the white paper’s presentation, the European heads of state agreed upon a set of common criteria for sustainable economic development which are known as the “Essen priorities” (Beck, 1997, p. 28). These criteria propose


  • the promotion of education to facilitate the entry into working life,
  • a more flexible organization of work, e.g. in part-time employment or temporary work contracts,
  • the improved assistance of defavorized groups such as young unemployed or older employees.


The Essen priorities served to add a social dimension to the discourse of economic policy. In 2000, they were taken up and enlarged by the Lisbon strategy with the objective of becoming “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion” (de Ruiter, 2008, April). The Lisbon strategy proposed to continue the investment in education. This should firstly encourage research and development and thus allow Europe to meet the uprising economic powers in the East with an advance in technology; secondly it should create a European Social Model based on a flexible knowledge society and on the service economy. In June 2008, the Commission will propose a new “Social Agenda for Opportunity, Access and Solidarity” (Commission pushing for ‘New Social Agenda’, 2008, May). Accordingly, its focus will lie on “improving workers' rights and promoting better education systems”. In particular, the Commission sees the knowledge of European languages as an “important part of the skills set required in Europe”.

However, a large part of the efforts to establish a European Social Model are based on the open method of coordination, “a form of transnationalised target-setting between national governments of the member states” (de Ruiter, 2008, April) which essentially leaves the sovereignty with the individual nation-states rather than with the European Commission. This constellation is an impediment toward a trans-national European Social Model, because the nation-states have different models of achieving economic growth and social welfare. Three of these models concur in Europe. The first one is a liberal welfare-capitalists state, of which examples are the US and the UK (de Ruiter, 2008, April). The public policy of these systems builds upon the idea that every citizen provides for himself: women are encouraged to participate in the labor force, while the degree of redistribution of income is low. Consequently, the level of decommodification is low as well; the citizen has only little to expect from the state. The second model can be found in Germany for example. The corporatist state has a higher degree of decommodification and redistribution. While it thus provides social security, “(l)abour market participation by married women is strongly discouraged” (de Ruiter, 2008, April); the system focuses on the male breadwinner as the economic actor. The disadvantage of this model is that it creates insiders and outsiders of the society. Only him who works can have the feeling of participating, of actively contributing to and taking from the society (see below). Finally, the third model is propagated by the Scandinavian countries for instance. The social democratic state has a high degree of decommodification, and the propensity to redistribute income is very high. Nevertheless, the system aims at full employment; to this end it actively encourages women to participate in the labor market, which will ideally keep the redistribution of income at a low level.

Given the different approaches of these models and their history-grown installation in the respective nation-states, the establishment of a veritable European Social Model faces many obstacles. A particularly important one, as highlighted by the corporatist model and addressed in the Commission’s “New Social Agenda”, is the full integration of women into the labor force. The current situation presents injustices in several respects. Firstly, according to Ellissaveta Radulova, women are still underrepresented in the labor force because some still see it as their traditional role to care for children and housework (2008, April). Secondly, women who do participate in the labor force often have to perform the task of “superwoman”: “A superwoman [is] expected to participate fully in all spheres – the domestic, the workplace and public life – while raising a family, looking good and engaging in a mutually satisfying sex life, without any fundamental structural changes to society” (Weedon, 1999, p. 15). Thirdly, women fully engaged in the labor force are frequently discriminated against when it comes to the rise in position or the salary. Radulova asserts that, on the European average, a woman with a university degree only earns 12% more income than a man with a secondary education, while a man with the same education will earn 62% more (2008, April). It appears that education is not as rewarding for women as it is for men – a component which has to be taken into account in the Lisbon debate for a knowledge-based society.

However, it would be wrong to narrow the debate of women’s integration into the labor force down only to women. It should be seen in the broader context of “reconciliation” between men and women. Monica Threlfall proposes to regard the issue of child and family care as equally important as the question of labor force participation. Accordingly, while some women pressure themselves to accept the role of housewife and mother, men flee into the role of the “family breadwinner [who is] providing for mother and child” (Threlfall, 2000, p. 185-6). This allows them to avoid doing child care by “increasing the time spent at work under the guise of being a better provider” (p. 186). Reconciliation consequently has to negotiate between the individual roles in order to find a viable solution for both. Threlfall presents several models which allow families to combine care and work. One model proposes to pay women for the work of child and family care. This would enlarge the service economy, spare the need to create new jobs and allow women to participate in the society to a certain degree. However, the model has numerous disadvantages. Thus, it blends family life and work life together, making it difficult for women to feel at home in their family where the housework payment provokes an expectancy of professional family service. Furthermore, it might create a society where women are officially included in the labor force, but effectively and purposefully kept away from the real economy.

Threlfall (2000) therefore presents the ideal model as a family with two breadwinners working part-time in complementary shifts and doing the care and family work together (p. 194). This model would yield perfect reconciliation to both man and woman, because the nominal conditions of their work and family life are equal. However, in practice the revenue for two part-time jobs does not equal the payment for a single full-time job, thus “the loss in earnings is considerable” (p. 195). In addition, in a society where both models mentioned exist, the man working part-time will be forced to accept a loss in social status vis-à-vis his full-time breadwinning colleagues.

To conclude, the debate about the European Social Model is charged with controversies in many respects. The faultlines run along a variety of controversial aspects in the European debate. Due to the limited space of this essay, only some of them have been mentioned:


  • the issue of inclusion and exclusion of defavorized groups such as young unemployed, elderly and poorly educated citizens
  • the faultline along national preferences of social models,
  • the problem of reconciliation and equal treatment between men and women and the question of social participation which accompanies it.


It appears that a veritable European Social Model which can abolish all of the mentioned faultlines is a utopian thought. In this sense, the Commission’s proposition of the “New Social Agenda” in June 2008 should not be regarded with too much enthusiasm. The reality has shown that advances have not come through a big bang, but through continuous reforms and persistent revisions of the faultlines. However, it is important that these reforms continue and that the efforts are repeatedly published, so as to allow the European public a gradual change of mentality toward a higher degree of mutual understanding. Only a continuous effort by governments, journalists and citizens will pave the way for a successful European Social Model which may create job security for young and old and provide a family-friendly social climate that allows for secure family planning in the future.



Beck, W., van der Maesen, L. & Walker, A. (Eds.). (1998). The Social Quality of Europe. Bristol: Policy Press.


Commission pushing for 'New Social Agenda' (2008). Retrieved May 8, 2008, from http://www.euractiv.com/en/socialeurope/commission-pushing-new-social-agenda/article-172189


De Ruiter, R. (2008, April). European Social Model(s): an EU-wide welfare state or prevailing national diversity? Presented at Maastricht University, Maastricht.


Jepsen, M., Serreno Pascual, A. (2005). The European Social Model: an exercise in deconstruction. Journal of European Social Policy, Vol. 15.No. 3.


Radulova, E. (2008, April). Gender Politics and European Equality Policies. Presented at Maastricht University, Maastricht.


Threlfall, M. (2000). Taking stock and Looking Head, in Hantrais, L. (ed.) Gendered Policies in Europe: Reconciling Employment and Family Life, Basingstoke: Macmillan.


Weedon, C. (1999). The Question of Difference, in Feminism, Theory and the Politics of Difference, Oxford: Blackwell.