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Debate: Socialist Europe

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Is socialism in Europe sustainable? Is it a model internationally?

Background and context

Social Europe is a relatively loose term, with a series of different meanings associated with it. It can mean the European Union’s social policies with regards to employment policy, working conditions, pension plans, education and health care, as well as similar national social policies.
Clement Atlee, U.K. Prime Minister 1945-1951
It also refers to the European political social left – social democrats and socialists (as opposed to European neo-liberals and conservatives), and notions of social justice. “Within the EU context, Social Europe consists of around seventy directives or regulations on the equal treatment of men and women, improvement in living and working conditions, protection of health and safety in the work place and on consultation of the workforce. It consists of a financial tool, the European Social Fund (47 billion Euros, about 10% of the Community budget for the period 1994-1999). And finally, it is a field of Community action in which the direct involvement of social groups and their representatives has evolved alongside the traditional decision-making mechanisms in working out the Community social provisions. Three framework agreements have been concluded on parental leave, part-time work and fixed-term employment contracts, and these have been translated into Council directives. The Amsterdam Treaty includes social advances, notably a new heading on employment. The Maastricht Social Agreement, which was attached to the Treaty, has now been incorporated into it and several of its aspects reinforced. A new article unanimously allows the measures needed to combat discrimination to be taken.”* (see source under Web Links) Current discussions on Social Europe focus mainly on the unemployment problem that much of Europe is now facing and seek to assess the extent to which current social policies can be maintained and even expanded under the pressure of unemployment, immigration, population decline and aging. Within the EU, France remains one of the strongest supporters of Social Europe along with Germany, Italy and Belgium.

Contents

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Argument #1

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Yes

The European Union agenda has recognized from the very beginning the important role that social policies were going to play in setting up the Union. The vision of the EU recognized a common concern over a series of important social benefits such as employment, pensions, education, healthcare and justice, many of which were seen to follow directly from the policies guiding economic integration. Thus social and economic policies within the EU were seen as working hand in hand, with social benefits springing directly from economic benefits.

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No

While the vision of Social Europe is indeed one directly connected to the question of economic success within the EU, this vision does not consider the possibility of economic decline within the EU. This is indeed the scenario with which we are faced now, with rising unemployment throughout much of the EU and declining or stagnating GDP growth rates. Unfortunately the grand social vision of the EU cannot be sustained without the success of its economic mechanism. With an ailing mechanism, we will need to reconsider this vision as well as its specific implementation. We suggest that the specific vision of a Social Europe needs to be an option not a necessity. Europe needs to learn to adapt to both its economic successes and its failures.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Turning Social Europe into an option as opposed to a necessity risks undermining the entire mechanism, vision and ideals on which the EU is based. A consistent social, political and economic approach within the EU is essential for its survival and future success. Unemployment and economic failures are not new to the EU by any means. In fact, the vision of Social Europe was developed at a time when much of Europe was in ruins, employment ran extremely low and growth rates were negative. It was precisely this vision that allowed Europe to put itself back on its feet, relying on one its most important resources: people. The difficulty of current economic conditions necessitates a revision of current implementation policies of Social Europe and an expansion of these policies.

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No

While an expansion of Social Europe sounds great on paper, in practice this expansion is simply not sustainable, particularly given current levels of expenditure (social services often make up for over 50% of national budgets and much more of the EU budget) and a rising resistance to increased taxation. While unions and other interest groups are quick to demand more benefits and protest the removal of old ones, economic growth is simply not possible with an increase in social benefits. A flexible labour market and the privatization of certain social benefits such as the pension system, have proven to be very successful in places like the UK, with a series of other European nations following that trend – such as Sweden.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The UK has indeed been doing slightly better than the rest of the EU, but economically speaking the Anglo-Saxon liberal economic model is in reality not that much different from the Social model. In percentage terms, the UK spends just as much as Germany and France on social services. Economic success is not the only criteria by which people’s desires should be judged. Unions and interest groups are defending more than a comfortable living: they are defending a particular lifestyle, a sense of security and long-term protection that are just as important as economic growth. These are more than just protests: they are democratic demands of a population that has chosen the kind of state that it desires: for the most part, a social-democratic one. Many of the current EU policies such as enlargement and development policies are dependent on this particular view of the state. Without it, there would be no redistribution of funds to needy areas throughout the EU, and for applicant countries as well as former colonies in the developing world.

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No

Social Europe is failing and the Anglo-Saxon model can easily be proven to be more successful than the continental Social model simply by looking at a series of recent events. The recent unrests in Paris, France were caused by rising immigration – and the burdening social services associated with illegal immigration – and the attempt to vote in new hiring legislation seeking more flexibility in the youth labour market as a solution to rising unemployment of people under 30. These riots, and similar resistance elsewhere, are clear signs that Social Europe is trapped. The illusion of social security under conditions of deep economic trouble – constantly rising unemployment rates – while temporarily soothing, is simply not realistic. Social Europe and an increase in social benefits will not solve France’s problems in the long run. That people are not yet ready to accept much-needed structural economic change is a different question. As for the EU applicant countries, they have clearly adopted the Anglo-Saxon model, most of their economic reforms being aimed at market liberalization and slow privatization of social services. The EU development funds towards applicant countries are most often meant to help with the liberalization process, not to sustain failing social security systems.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Social Europe and Liberal Europe need not be mutually exclusive. The question here is not so much whether one should lean towards one or the other, but about which one best represents social desires and demands. Europe has generally enjoyed a high-standard of living and, for the most part, continues to do so despite rising unemployment rates and a series of different protests. Over and over again, European nations have stated that their social criteria go beyond economic development and are more concerned with insuring a sense of security among all different sections of society, even at the economic cost of redistribution of funds through a series of social benefits. Even if this approach did result in somewhat lower economic growth overall (which we dispute), it would still be a valid policy choice for European societies to make. Current pressures that result from increasing immigration as well as the population aging process will not find solutions in a liberal Europe, which will seek to simply marginalize the immigrants and the old. Social Europe should not be perceived as a burden or a cause of this crisis, but rather as the source of the solution.

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No

Higher costs, that a Social Europe necessarily imposes, can simply not be a solution to what is mainly an economic crisis. While immigration and aging can be perceived as social processes, the problem here lies with their economic impact not with the process itself – the healthcare costs of illegal immigrants, the increased pension costs for the rising numbers of pensioners and the decreasing number of the working population are economic expenses that affect the population at large. Economically speaking, more expenses cannot be a solution to a budget problem. Structural reform has historically proven to be the only solution to such budget problems. Increasing the retirement age in order to increase the number of the working population and automatically decrease the number of pensioners, is a realistic solution to the aging problem. Offering increased pensions and more benefits to the retirees, while socially popular, is not. The sooner we accept this, the easier it will be to deal with these problems efficiently.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Social Europe can also be a solution to the immigration and aging problems by offering illegal immigrants avenues towards legal immigration and thus contribution to the social taxation system and lowering of costs. It can also provide a solution to the aging problem by offering the elderly creative ways to continue to contribute to economic growth – starting small businesses, actively helping their communities through a series of volunteer activities or helping their families with child care thus freeing the hands of those who can work. While Social Europe can use a more efficient implementation, its mechanisms can be fairly creative and useful in providing the necessary sense of security that Europe has always took pride in, as well as insuring a careful negotiation of periods of crisis. Logic cannot be the only criteria for social governance, for collectives often do not act according to logic: one needs to be careful to provide people with something to look forward to. That is after all the role of the state – providing a vision and not just administering.

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No

The creative mechanisms of Social Europe are not working and there is not enough time to wait until new ones are implemented. The process of Social Europe remains a highly bureaucratic one, and thus, almost inherently, a highly inefficient one. The security that Social Europe is supposed to provide has simply not come through. In fact, we have seen quite the opposite happen: a rising insecurity among all layers of society, from unemployed youth, to a middle-class that can simply not replicate a similar standard of living as that of their parents, and a marginalized population that finds itself on the fringes of the economy as well as on the fringes of the social security system. Very often social protections mean benefits for those in work at the expense of high unemployment. Whether we like it or not, liberal Europe has proven to be more capable of creating jobs, and so offering a sense of hope to its citizens, even when it came at the cost of cutting certain social benefits.

See also

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