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Europe's Social Protection

In the majority of European countries, public initiatives in the area of social welfare policy have all tended toward the same goal: limiting the role of the State. Nevertheless what one observes is not so much the retrenchment of the State, but a transformation of the forms of its involvement. At the same time, behind the observable similarity among measures adopted, it is clear that specific policy characteristics vary from country to country. There is no “best solution”, or one size to fit all national systems, likely to emerge.

The concept of social welfare can have no real meaning outside of a definition of the configuration of a social welfare system and its emphasis on the inter-relations of the organisations and actors and their context. This context includes several spheres: economic, social-domestic, political-administrative, and a cross-section sphere of norms and traditions. A configuration is tied to the underlying long-term reality of institutions. The conditions under which social welfare systems are born continue to exercise an important influence. These systems were built up at the end of the 19th century on the basis of “institutionalised compromises” most often about health care and retirement, which had a great deal to do with legitimising the State at that time. These were all elements affecting the development of social welfare in each country.

The State's role not so much reduced as changed
Over the last 25 years, various pressures of an economic as well as social and even political nature have weighed upon social welfare systems through both financial constraints imposed and — at the same time — new forms of need. Most policy initiatives have aimed at reducing public benefits at the same time as the role of the State overall, for instance through changes in the definition of benefits, introduction of mechanisms of competition and autonomous management in certain public services, and privatisation. The reinforcement of the “insurance” or commercial nature of some benefits is another aspect of this general tendency. Direct intervention has often been replaced by tax or social payment exemptions, which do not require State financing. Finally, with the exception of the UK, the role of the centralised State has been reduced in favor of local and regional administrative bodies.
These measures have contributed in very unequal amounts to a limitation of public expenditure, or they have weighed upon fiscal resources. They have very often required new public intervention to correct unexpected or negative effects. Cash benefits have been created to counter the rise of poverty or to respond to new needs. Above all, a whole range of public initiatives has developed in response to unemployment, including employment policies that can be considered as extensions of traditional welfare systems.

Reforms that look alike but are different
Although these policy tendencies can all be found in all countries, specific implementation is widely diverse. Reforms that seem the same on the surface pursue specific goals in each country. Conversely, similar goals may be pursued by different instruments in different countries (or the same instruments applied in different degrees). A process of change can result from either incremental or broad-stroke strategies. There are only a few examples of sweeping reforms of “institutionalised compromises”, which would suggest their continued role in legitimising the State. Finally, the effects as well as the efficiency of similar strategies can vary widely, even going as far as to counter the original intent1. Deciding a single “best” social model is therefore not possible.
Will ongoing changes in the configuration of social welfare systems lead to new configurations that more closely resemble one another? If the forms of benefits delivered are tending to converge, the same is not true of organisational models as well as of the actual processes of change from one country to another. The role of the European Union, while still limited as to social welfare policy traditionally defined, will likely become increasingly important in employment policy or the fight against poverty and will contribute to European convergence in these areas. Finally, fiscal policy plays a large part in income redistribution and therefore contributes to this diversity of effects observed among social welfare systems.

Countries under consideration: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

1/ For example, the law of 1987 encouraging competition among health insurance providers in the Netherlands ended up provoking restrictive practices.



à lire

• C. André. Les réformes de l'État social dans l'Union européenne depuis vingt ans : de grandes orientations communes mais encadrées par les configurations nationales. CEPREMAP, Rapport pour le Commissariat Général du Plan, 2001.
• C. André. "Ten European Systems of Social Protection. An Ambiguous Convergence". in D. Pieters (ed.). European Social Policy and Global Politics, Kluwer Law International, 2003.


Christine André
Researcher at the CNRS
Régulation, ressources humaines et économie publique
Centre d'études prospectives d'économie mathématique appliquée à laplanification (CEPREMAP)-CNRS

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