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7 November 2016

Leveraging the gulf in public opinion to enhance the social dimension of Europe

Maurizio Ferrera is an acknowledged expert on the topic of social protection systems in Europe. During an ETUI lunch debate held in Brussels on 25 October, he called for the establishment of a ‘European Social Union’, combining economic integration with social cohesion and requiring political, economic and intellectual elites to look beyond their normal frame of reference and initiate groundbreaking projects.

Ferrera presented the preliminary results of an opinion poll surveying citizens of six Member States (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden). Despite the rising tide of populist movements in Europe and a distinctly inward-looking political mood, the results reveal that most people still believe in the importance of solidarity. More than four out of ten of those surveyed agreed that not only EU citizens, but people of all nationalities should be entitled to social security benefits in their country of residence. The findings from the poll also offer a measure of comfort to supporters of the European project; greater European integration was backed by the majority of those surveyed in all countries, and by the vast majority in Italy and Spain.

According to Ferrera, Professor of Political Science at the University of Milan, these findings suggest the existence of a solid bedrock of grassroots support for the idea of a social Europe, stymied to date by the lack of appropriate channels for its expression. He placed the blame for this at the feet of the elites, by which he means not only political decision-makers and bureaucrats, but also economic and social leaders and intellectuals, whom he criticised for being overly conformist.

Ferrera expressed his belief that Europe needs a new ‘intellectual framework’ comprising three pillars – an Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), a European Political Union (EPU) and a European Social Union (ESU) – and explained that he envisaged the latter of these projects culminating in ‘a Union of national welfare states’ rather than a ‘supranational welfare state’.

Maria Jepsen, Director of the ETUI Research Department, also commented on the Italian researcher’s recent findings, making particular reference to the gulf in public opinion which had opened up between a majority in favour of enhancing the social dimension of the European project and a sizeable minority embracing inward-looking policies. She expressed her belief that ‘these conflicts could serve as a positive force’, explaining that Europe’s social dimension had previously always been discussed as a counterweight to economic integration rather than as a subject for debate in its own right.

Jepsen went on to say that the market – with its penchant for individual responsibility – had set the tone for European integration since 2005, with protection becoming ‘a taboo subject’. Although the concept had recently found favour again, particularly in political circles, there was a dearth of leaders able to represent this way of thinking on the European stage, and ‘no reason to believe that a coalition will be formed in the near future’. In this connection, Jepsen called for the Treaties to be amended in order to put social integration on a level playing field with the economy.

Further reading:

Ferrera M., Rotta di collisione. Euro contro welfare? (Heading for collision: the euro against welfare?), Editori Laterza, 2016.

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