Fundamental pillars of EU Social Policy – The ESF and the employment strategy


It is not in any way a secret that European Social Policy is mainly – and basically – European employment policy. What can be – and actually is again and again – discussed is the meaning and assessment of this fact. Some see in the employment simply the working for the general and fundamental perquisites of social integration. Others criticise such an orientation for not taking – sufficiently – further aspects of social integration into account. Perhaps one can even go further and look at the understanding of social integration as it is implied in the two perspectives.

*   The first view is oriented along a kind of static top down model; the social “space” that is the focus of integration is predefined and “given”, namely the system of the labour market as it is characteristic element of the current capitalist society and that is the core of relevance of any activity. Point of reference is the market

*   The second perspective does not take so much an existing integration as reference point and claims that integration has to take place into this existing system. Although, of course, certain understanding of – as Simmel probably would say – a “good society”[1] exists the actual interest is – in the best case at least – the development of the space itself. Rather than aiming on the integration and thus assimilation/adaptation of the individual to the existing conditions we would see the empowerment of the “social individual” with the aim of bring about individuals who are able to – mutually – create their own space. Employment would be just a means; the focus is the individual as soci(et)al being that realises and fulfils him/herself.

As the old idealist idea of the cogito ergo sum (Descartes: Discourse on the Method (1637) is long since permutated to the consumo ergo sum (cf. Herrmann Social Policy in the European Union (Sozialpolitik in der Europäischen Union); Rheinfelden/Berlin: Schäuble, 1997) as it can be seen in the perspective mentioned first the option of the latter perspective would be I act together with others and this allows my conscious being – in its fundamental orientation probably not too far from the Marxist perspective.

Another dichotomy employed between the two perspectives is consequently the one between statism and dynamism.


In other – less philosophical and fundamental – terms the question is not if and to which extent employment is important. Rather, the quality and embedding of employment in the entire system is more of relevance.

The history of European integration and European Social Policy had been already presented elsewhere in some sketchy manner. The first elements can be found in the European Communities for Coal and Steel and can basically be described as compensation and equalisation funds. This basically was the orientation on co-ordination and aimed on making free movement of workers possible. If intended or not cannot be discussed here. However, this strategic statement was based on the admission of disequilibria as systematic part of the envisaged market system. In other words: The market, promoted as the only societal order, had been seen as incomplete, a market failure as obviously inevitable. Perhaps it is even possible to speak of the establishment of a system along a contradiction in terms. Be it is it is, the strategic orientation was taken over into the Treaty of Rome and is basically unchanged up to now. The basic orientation of the funds can be seen from the objectives which are well described by the following list as it has currently again revisited and which is now changed. The following gives the up to recently valid list. These objectives had been changed over the years for several times and right now a major revision took place. However, despite the changes the basic orientation had never been really changed.

The priority Objectives and the Structural Funds

The regulations adopted in 1993 for the period 1994-1999 established 6 priority Objectives for the Structural Funds:


Objective 1: Promoting the development and structural adjustment of regions whose development is lagging behind

Objective 2: Converting regions seriously affected by industrial decline

Objective 3: Combating long-term unemployment and facilitating the integration into working life of young people and of those excluded from the labour market

Objective 4: Facilitating the adaptation of workers to industrial changes and changes in production systems

Objective 5a: Speeding up the adjustment of agricultural structures in the framework of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and facilitating the structural adjustment of the fisheries sector in the framework of the Common Fisheries Policy

Objective 5b: Facilitating the development and structural adjustment of rural areas.


A further objective was created by the Act of Accession for Austria, Finland and Sweden:


Objective 6: Promoting the development of regions with an extremely low population density.

In technical terms the Funds is organised around these general objectives and certain programmes and projects are then implemented on the national and local level respectively. At the same time the Community Initiatives are particular elements that are basically instruments under the control of the European Commission and as such dedicated to certain strategic aspects as youth unemployment, disabled people, disadvantaged people, women et altera. Even if the projects as such are still “local” or “regional” the overall organisation and control is carried out by the EUC or subsequent bodies. This means not least that the selection of the respective activities is largely a European one, different to the other ESF activities that are largely controlled by the member states themselves.

What is in any case important – and interesting in terms of political strategy development – is the rather strong emphasis on the local level – not just in regard of the implementation role but as well in regard of the policy development. One aspect besides others are the local employment pacts. Usually the local level is one with a very limited political responsibility in a wider sense – there are even marked differences between the member states regarding the political scope of the municipalities and local governments respectively. However, what had been said in general terms is an overall picture for the EU member states and especially in connection with macro-economic processes the local level is limited to the implementation of guidelines stemming from the central government. The local employment pacts, however, are different as they

  1. start from the acknowledgement of the necessity of a holistic, multidimensional point of which the objective is the overall development of the area (be it a community in the strict sense, a local community ort a region) – currently this is mainly grasped by the term of sustainability,

  2. aim on strengthening the political responsibility of the local level

  3. suggest to foster a “community responsibility” for local employment issues by promoting partnerships and participation.

Having said this it means just to mention the claim; the reality is a completely different question and so is the conceptualisation of the partnership as a basically class-reconciling approach – thus being a contradiction in terms.

The “Adjustment-Funds” is up to today the only major instrument of EU redistributive Social Policy. As such it can be said to be the leg to stand on for EU-Social Policy. Initially the leg for the actual and public game had been rather unconnected. A wide variety of programmes and projects can be seen which make up for what I called elsewhere a “social policy by programmes”. Poverty programmes, programmes against racism, against cancer and AIDS/HIV or aiming on specifically disadvantaged people (as e.g. disabled people) can be supported in the European framework. Even if it has been – correctly – said that the measures under the heading of the ESF had been basically not connected with the programme policy it has to be mentioned that subsequently the link had been established, further developed and more and more highlighted.

This finally culminated in the establishment of what is known as Employment Strategy of which the main objectives are as follows.

The European Employment Strategy in brief




This means helping people before or as soon as they become unemployed, rather than addressing their needs only once they have been out of a job for some time.


Member States will set concrete targets and objectives, in some cases at EU level, as benchmarks for evaluation of the success or failure of their employment policies.


Member States, together with the Commission, will set up institutional mechanisms and common employment indicators to allow for systematic assessment of action taken.


Other policies, at both national and Community level, must take account of the employment impact.


Employment policy is not the responsibility of governments alone. Social partners, regional and local partners, and NGOs all have a role to play by committing themselves to meeting the employment objectives


(From: The European Employment Strategy. Investing in People; Commission of the European Communities; Luxembourg: Office for official Publications of the European Communities, 1999: 7)

Even if the orientation on employment issues is runs through the entire history of European (social) policy there is a kind of take of in the early 1990s.

Probably the most important step had been the launch of the so-called Delors’ White Paper, the document under the title White paper on Competitiveness, Growth and Employment (note the sequence). In analytical and strategic terms it is a peculiar mixture between Keynesianism and liberalist economic perspectives. Most likely it justifies what I frequently called regulated deregulation. This major document from 1993 had been accompanied by the Green paper on Social Policy, published in the same year and later – in 1994 – the Social Policy White Paper.

Important summits for the further development of the employment strategy had been the ones of Essen (1994), Madrid (1995) and Dublin (1996).

With the Essen strategy we find the orientation on the ESF activities and the particular orientation on developing skills as means of fostering the potential of the individual to work. An action plan had been endorsed, of which the objective was to tackle unemployment, which had been seen by the European leaders (and still is seen) as the main social challenge. The Presidency conclusions state;


“The measures to be taken should include the following five key areas:

1.  Improving employment opportunities  for the labour force  by promoting investment in vocational training. To that end a key role falls to the acquisition of vocational qualifications, particularly by young people. As many people as possible must receive initial and further training which enables them through life-long learning to adapt to changes brought about by technological progress, in order  to reduce the risk of losing their employment.

2.  Increasing the employment-intensiveness of growth, in particular by:

3.  Reducing non-wage labour costs extensively enough to ensure that there is a noticeable effect on decisions concerning the taking on of employees and in particular of unqualified employees. The problem of non-wage labour costs can only be resolved through a joint effort by the economic sector, trade unions and the political sphere.

4.  Improving the effectiveness of labour-market policy: The effectiveness of employment policy must be increased by avoiding practices which are detrimental to readiness to work, and by moving from a passive to an active labour market policy. The individual incentive to continue seeking employment on the general labour market must remain. Particular account must be taken of this when working out income-support measures.           
The need for and efficiency of the instruments of labour-market policy must be assessed at regular intervals.

5.  Improving measures to help groups which are particularly hard hit by unemployment:               
Particular efforts are necessary to help young people, especially school leavers who have virtually no qualifications, by offering them either employment or training.   
The fight against long-term unemployment must be a major aspect of labour-market policy. Varying labour-market policy measures are necessary according to the very varied groups and requirements of the long-term unemployed.
Special attention should be paid to the difficult situation of unemployed women and older employees.”

From: European Council – December 9th/10th, 1994 in Essen. Presidency Conclusions; DN: DOC/94/4


The breakthrough, however, was the Amsterdam Treaty from 1997, which contains a full new chapter on Employment. It had been the first time throughout the history of European integration that employment as such had been a matter of common concern for Europe.

The key provisions are to be summarised as follows:

The Amsterdam Treaty’s Employment Title in a nutshell

(From: The European Employment Strategy. Investing in People; Commission of the European Communities; Luxembourg: Office for official Publications of the European Communities, 1999: 9)

Even if these provisions can be seen as breakthrough it did not mean the end of the development; rather, the Amsterdam Treaty provisions can be seen to some extent as the start of a new area – this is true in two regards.

1)  From now on the entire area of labour market and more particularly employment policy had been more then ever closely linked to any other area of (social) policy making. To be more precise: The employment strategy built the foundation for any other strategic reasoning regarding social policy and social integration. – One marked aspect had been the successive replacement of debates on exclusion by the emphasis of inclusion, reflecting the conceptual shift. In other words: employment had not been taken as means, as measure for social integration. Rather, in a pars-pro-toto approach employment had been as such seen as the solution of the challenges of social exclusion and social integration. This included, of course, the fundamental issues of strengthened strategies of blaming the victims and scapegoating and workfare orientations.

2)  This is closely linked to – or even based on – the so-called Luxembourg Process, the result of the Luxembourg summit from November 1997. This process focuses on four pillars, namely

Ø       Employability

Ø       Entrepreneurship

Ø       Adaptability

Ø       Equal Opportunities

     The process itself consists of the following five steps – however it can be argued if these are distinct steps or if instead we are concerned with a process in which different elements play a role just by their connection and mutual influence.

Even if the yearly guidelines are based on the process which “proceeds as a rolling programme of yearly planning, monitoring, examination and re-adjustment.” (The European Employment Strategy. Investing in People; Commission of the European Communities; Luxembourg: Office for official Publications of the European Communities, 1999: 11) the four pillars mentioned above are like a thread running through the entire strategy.


[1]       See as well the debate on the recent congress of the German Association of Sociology.