East Central Europe and the European Social Policy Model: A Long-Term View

By Tomka, Bela | East European Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

East Central Europe and the European Social Policy Model: A Long-Term View


Tomka, Bela, East European Quarterly


In an era when the political and public discourse on the European integration is dominated by notions about the backlash of that process, and even "The End of Europe" has been hastily declared, (1) it is more important than ever to reflect on the commonalities and diversity of European societies. In fact, the discussion of these qualities can not be regarded as a novelty. In the last one and a half decades an intense discourse has emerged around the evolution and sustainability of the "European social model," stimulating both political and academic debates across Europe. On the one hand, the concept has appeared with a normative content, referring to the agenda of European integration. When Jacques Delors presented it as an alternative to the American social and economic development in the mid-1980s, it meant the preservation and even strengthening of the achievements of European welfare states, and, possibly that of the social dimension of European integration. (2) In fact, a continuing ambition of the European Union had been the promotion of social cohesion, and this objective was even formalized in Art. 2 of the Treaty on European Union. However, it has often been claimed lately that the emergence of new production technologies and globalization along with the establishment of the European Monetary Union have fundamentally changed the relationship between the European Union's economic and social objectives, and an extensive social policy is inconsistent with increased economic integration and global competitiveness. As opposed to this view, there is evidence of economic dividends of a Social Europe as well, in addition to the positive impact it has on the quality of life. Moreover, major social groups are interested in both the retrenchment and the protection of welfare programs, as a result of which the continuation of animated public debates can be expected.

On the other hand, the concept of the European social model has emerged in academic discussion as a realized social developmental path of post-war Western Europe. In its most inclusive sense, the European social model has been used to refer to specific shared institutional features of Western European societies in the post-war period. There is no commonly agreed definition, but the model is routinely characterized by the coexistence of robust economic development and social progress, and, more specifically, by a combination of an extensive welfare state and highly institutionalized and politicized labor relations. (3) The emergence of the model can be traced back to the "mid-century social compromise" (4) or to "Europe's social contract" (5) or, in some respects, even further back, to the first half of the 20th century, (6) and is often contrasted either to the "American" or the "Japanese model." There exists another line of argumentation maintaining that the European social model cannot be described by welfare and industrial relations alone. It has been suggested that the concept should be analytically broadened and include other aspects, such as the "institutionalization of social diversity" (coordination, corporatism, democratic procedures, subsidiarity) and "social equalization" (universalism, market regulation, redistribution, solidarity). (7) A closer look can also reveal intra-European diversity and several national or regional "Socio-economic models," (8) or "Families of nations." (9) On the basis of this diversity, some observers even doubt the plausibility of the model. (10)

As seen above, despite the multitude of approaches, commonly applied definitions regard welfare as the core, though not the exclusive, component of the European social model. In fact, a closely related but narrower concept, the European social policy model, has also been proposed. Francis G. Castles has recently presented evidences for the existence of an emergent similarity of Western European social policies since the mid-1980s. …

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