The European Commission's Renewed Social Agenda aims auspiciously at 'Opportunities, Access and Solidarity in 21st Century Europe'. It outlines a framework for European social policy in the areas of employment and social affairs, education and youth, health care and the information society (European Commission, 2008).
Since social policy remains the responsibility of the member states, the Commission avoids defining its policy proposals as such. All the same, the EU sees itself in an 'ideal position' to pursue social policies for responding to socio-economic change resulting from technological development and globalisation. Contemporary social policy should be 'cross-cutting and multidimensional', both conceptually and with regard to implementation (1).
Thus, the Commission rightly poses the question of whether there might be scope for cross-sectoral measures at EU level, and whether the instruments available to the EU to support and supplement the member states 'should be reviewed' (European Commission, 2008, 4).
This question goes to the heart of the EU's current structure, and its relationship with the member states. For this reason the Social Agenda prompted a mixture of critical and dismissive. While some believe the Agenda does not go far enough, others criticise it for gratuitously increasing the role of the EU.
No doubt the EU's social dimension will continue to subject to much political contestation. In this article we look at the limits of social policy integration, levels of action achieved so far, and areas where we believe the EU could bring added value in terms of European welfarism.
Impediments to EU social policy
Traditionally, social policy is intended to benefit the disadvantaged--equalising chances in life, and living standards, within society. This includes conferring an equal start in life through education policy, and also equalising the safety nets for the main risks of life such as illness or unemployment. At the same time, social policy is also a potential growth factor for the national economy (Fouarge, 2003; European Commission, 1994).
Nevertheless, in EU member states, the scope of market intervention varies, according to respective welfare regime traditions. Hence, when it comes to the possibility of delegating social policy competences up to EU level, national starting points differ.
European welfarism, in the sense of a Europeanisation of social policy, is dependent on the common interest of member states in ceding powers to the EU. This brings free factors into play: (i) the degree of homogeneity of the member states (and in particular their respective living standards); (ii) the rivalry between the member-states and EU institutions with respect to optimum problem-solving ability; and (iii) the policy area in question.
Homogeneity matters. In distributional terms, European integration affects member states very differently, depending on their welfare regime (Busemeyer, Kellermann et al, 2008).
With regard to their economic makeup and welfare systems, recent EU members from Central and Eastern Europe seem to have only augmented the already heterogeneous EU mix. This complicates attempts to reach a common interest in further integration. In addition, transformational processes in the last twenty years or so have created a large segment of 'have-nots' in the populations of the new member states. Although the institutional aspects of accession are almost complete, the 'social consolidation' phase in these countries still lags far behind.
As heterogeneous as the group of new member states might otherwise be, income convergence with the EU fifteen is the principal membership aim of them all. In this connection, proposals concerning social harmonisation are immediately suspected of aiming first and foremost at protecting the interests of the old member states, with their presumably higher standards. …