electronic newsletter European Interests

European Social Policy at a Crossroads

Recently the 2nd European Social Policy Forum took place in Brussels. The recent ruling of the European Court against European social policy had overshadowed the European Social Policy Forum.

The European Court of Justice showed the dilemma of European Social Policy. In a recent ruling (C-106/96; May 12th, 1998), the Court required the review of the legal basis for European spending in the field of social policy. The ruling is the result of the action lodged by the UK. The initiative has to be seen in close connection with the argument concerning the 4th European programme against poverty and social exclusion, where namely the German government opposed the Commission's proposal (cf. my contribution Subsidiarity and the Wrong Reserve or: The Meaning of European Porgrammes Combating Poverty [Subsidiariät und die falsche Zurückhaltung oder: Über den Sinn europäischer Armutsprogramme]; in: Nachrichtendienst des Deutschen Vereins für öffentliche und private Fürsorge, Frankfurt/M., Issue 2/1995: pp. 79 – 86; in regard of the 3rd anti poverty programme: Peter Herrmann [Ed.]: European Integration and politics of the Poverty Programmes – On the Way to an Integrated Social Policy Approach? (Europäische Integration und Politik der Armutsprogramme – Auf dem Weg zu einem integrierten Sozialpolitikansatz?); Rheinfelden/Berlin: Schäuble, 1995). The Court stated that only non-significant actions could be executed on the current legal basis, leaving open what this vague term means.

In every case, the ruling is a serious drawback in regard of social policy on the European level. Even if the Amsterdam Treaty is not ratified yet, the political signals, which are given by the new Treaty, had not been taken into account by this ruling. Thus, the budget lines in the social area cannot be kept in their intention.

The Forum itself stressed different approaches in the field of European Social Policy. On the one hand it stressed the existing and approved main stream, i.e. the strong orientation on employment, as it had been strengthened on last year’s Luxembourg summit. Four main pillars had been put on the agenda, namely employability, entrepreneurship, adaptibility and equal opportunities.

The other strand, which had been stressed on the Forum, had been characterised by the ongoing insecurity of Commissioner Flynn’s DG: Obviously he is caught in the shortcoming of the current legislative basis for EU-social policy. May it be as it is, as lip-service or honestly convinced, he asked for a broader approach, for a social policy approach, which is not just reduced on integration into the labour market. Instead, he calls for social integration, for measures against social exclusion and not least for the true recognition of all actors in the social field, including namely the non-governmental organisations. As stated in his introductory address it reads as follows. ‘We must offer NGOs the right framework to work with us to articulate the needs of the most vulnerable in the Union, so that we help our own efforts to avoid following a bureaucratic agenda, rather than the political agenda the people of Europe expect from the principles upon which the European Union has been built.’

Unfortunately, the debate on a real search on such an approach, which is appropriate to the today’s real needs in the field of ‘the social’, had not been a real issue of the Forum. This can frankly be seen as a missed opportunity, because initiatives, which point on crucial points for the debate are given.

This newsletter draws attention already on the European Foundation on Social Quality. A first main aim of the foundation is to ‘enhance the role of social scientists in the development of the EU. The second is to respond to the pleas, by European policy makers such as Jacques Delors, for a new dialogue between economic policies and social policies in order to both address the great economic and social changes taking place in Europe and to assist the Union in moving beyond the current policy deadlock.’ (Beck/van der Maesen/Walker [Eds.]: The Social Quality of Europe; The Hague/London/Boston: Kluwer Law, 1997: 1) The underlying understanding of Social Quality is expressed in the following words. ‘Our initial formulation is that social quality may be defined as the extent to which citizens are able to participate in the social and economic life of their communities under conditions which enhance their well-being and individual potential. In order to be enabled to participate (or to enjoy at least a minimum level of social quality), citizens have i) to have access to an accepted minimum level of economic security, ii) to experience a basic level of social inclusion, iii) to live in a community which exhibits social cohesion and iv) to be empowered to develop their competencies. In other words social quality rests on the extent of social, economic and political citizenship enjoyed by the people of Europe.’ (267 f.) The basic assumption is that two paradoxes, which are taken for granted in the main stream discussion, are not real. ‘Rejection of the functionalist view of the zero-sum power relationship between Member States and the European Union … allows a more positive perspective of the EU’s potential role. … New problems stimulate new functions, which can threaten, but also strengthen, the functioning of governance at different levels of the Member States with regard to the social domain.’ (269) And: ‘With the European Commission, we can hypothesise ‘a positive relationship between social policies stimulating high social standards and competitiveness and successful economic performance.’ (270)

Another project worth mentioning is the project from the Council of Europe under the title ‘human dignity & social exclusion’. Two important documents are published, namely ‘Contributions to the debate in social exclusion: a multi-disciplinary approach [HDSE 98/6]’ and Opportunity and risk: Trends of social exclusion in Europe [HDSE 98/1]’ (Contact: Ms. Maryvonne Lyazid, Project Manager, Council of Europe; e-mail: maryvonne.lyazid@coe.fr). The first mentioned report is of particular interest, as it combines information in between the micro- and the macro-level, i.e. the level of the immediate affectedness and ‘big politics’. For example, it is pointed on the fact that excluded people ‘live as if they were illegal immigrants in their own country. The fact of exercising rights is a citizen’s responsibility, individually, but also collectively.’ (17) As well, we find the discussion of the fact that even in the member states the acknowledgement of human rights is in no way self-evident – neither for the so-called third country nationals nor for EU citizens (see as well the Annual report on respect for human rights in the European Union [1996] by the European Parliament – Rapporteur: Mrs. Aline Pailler). Not coercive methods will improve the situation. ‘In other words it is a case of being willing to listen, taking the time to understand, and above all taking the time necessary to establish confidence.’ (22) Instead of blaming the victims ‘a better understanding and knowledge of the efforts made every day by those who live in exclusion to try to get out of it’ (24) is requested. Many other points are discussed, including the question of accessibility of European funds.

Other features, which had not really and in depth been discussed on the EU Social Policy Forum, are the experiences of the EUproject on ‘Social Work and Social Exclusion in Europe’ (IFSW Europe: Social Exclusion & Social Work in Europe – Facilitating Inclusion; o.O.: o.J. [1997]), carried out – with funding from the EU – by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) [Contact: IFSW Vice-President/Europe: Eilis Walsh; Russborough; Blessington; Co. Wicklow; Ireland; Ph/FAX +353.(0)45.891193]. In the frame of this project exclusion had not been defined in the limited way of tackling unemployment. Instead, inclusion had been taken as point of departure, meaning that participation in the life of society – in which way ever – has to be taken as point of reference. Material problems as well as problems of subjective exclusion on the social level and problems of exclusion because of social policies are the foundation for a wide range of recommendations for the public, for professional associations and for European and national bodies.

– But all this is symptomatic: On the one hand, approaches as those just mentioned are supported by the EU; on the other hand, the valuable experiences are not brought on the political agenda. This is an expression of the missing legal basis and at the same time expression of the helplessness to draw a coherent strategy from the more or less scattered experiences of the supported projects.

In regard of this year's Social Policy Forum not least the following has been remarkable: The official programme had been accompanied by several actions of NGOs – outside of the building and inside the building.

I do not want to go into details in regard of the Social Policy Forum – further information is available from the Commission's respective website.

Instead, I want to draw these aspects together, thus opening the view for another interpretation of the ECJ-ruling than a strict and simplified characterisation as scandal.

Of course, the ruling is in a way a step back and disappointing. The interpretation of the existing competencies, as given in primary law up to the Maastricht Treaty and in the various secondary law provisions, is extremely tight. Looking at the respective press release from 1995 and 1996, which are mentioned in the ruling, it gets clear that in fact the ruling defines the term non-significant actions implicitly as exceptional actions – a difference, which is of crucial importance. In consequence it means that measures on the current legal basis are only possible insofar as they do not intervene in the current national social policy arrangements in a strict sense. This interpretation is evidenced by the fact that one reason for the opinion of the European judges is that the proposed measures could have been part of the proposed 4th EU anti-poverty-programme, which then had been disapproved by the Council (see above). However, the ruling does not effect only actions in the field of combating poverty and social exclusion. Instead, the Commission blocked in consequence over forty budget lines affecting the work with some of the poorest and most vulnerable groups. The budget lines concern fight against racism, medical centres for victims of torture; human rights and poverty programmes in Europe and in the developing world; landmine rehabilitation projects; work with families, children, women, migrants, youth, people with disabilities and those who are unemployed.

On the other hand, the judgement is not thus scandalous, as it seems to be at a first glance. It simply traces the European reality of social policy in strict legal terms – and instead of blaming the Judges we have to blame in fact the Council. The Council’s decision against the 4th EU anti-poverty-programme had been a marked step against any progress in regard of getting a wider, comprehensive and more accountable approach of EU social policy on the way. In other words, we can interpret the ruling as invitation to overcome the minor position of the social in the EU law by precise provisions, which allow European actions to foster a social quality of Europe rather than only in the sense of integration in the labour market.

And taken in this way it is up to the social profession to define the needs for the definition of such a social quality and as well to challenge the European Institutions to open the way for concrete measures.

The basis for this has meanwhile improved by the provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty, which is still to be ratified. And it is necessary to develop more pressure to ensure that the realisation of the amendments is in favour of the excluded. It is positive as well that the European Parliament has announced – unofficially – a strategy to support such pressure: Plans exist to freeze the 1999 budget in general to force the Council to give way for a comprehensive social policy approach.

© Peter Herrmann, ESOSC

http://www.sozialarbeit.de/europa/newslett/news/nee03.htm - accessed 28.3.2002