Monday 13 February 2012

Why we need Social Europe

Ahead of the Fabian Society's Social Europe conference on 25th February, Ivana Bartoletti, Editor of Fabiana and former policy advisor to Romano Prodi government in Italy, writes for Next Left on why a social agenda must be at the heart for Europe  

European social policy comprises a variety of interventions, which take place mainly through the so-called Open Method of Coordination. The outcome is an amalgam of legislation, financial aid, cooperation and soft law mechanisms such as guidelines, benchmarking, and best practice.

In recent years, soft law mechanisms have become the preferred route to promote innovation in social policy. They are embedded in the Lisbon Strategy, which was adopted in 2000 with the aim of turning Europe into a socially inclusive and competitive, knowledge-based economy by 2010.

However, in the past ten years the idea underpinning the Lisbon Strategy — that economic and social goals must be closely connected — has been slowly abandoned. By 2005, the focus of the Strategy had shifted from considering social policy as a key factor for growth, to simply ‘growth and jobs’, without any mention of it. This didn’t happen by chance, but has been the result of the swing to the right, which has occurred in many countries over the past ten years.

Such a shift in the political agenda has become clearly visible in the way the EU has decided to deal with the current crisis. European countries, almost all run at present by conservatives, seem to believe that austerity is the only way forward to tackle the crisis. Whether true or not, this has had the effect of making citizens feel that Europe cannot provide any social protection, thus disenfranchising them; this belief can lead easily towards nationalism and protectionism.

Political and economic wisdom, as well as analysis of the outcomes, should suggest that austerity, à la Merkel and Sarkozy, does not work. A Wall Street Journal article, published in 2009 warned of the risk of EU countries entering a vicious circle of deflationary ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ wage strategies; something which would endanger countries and lead to a spiral of poverty and lower living standards.

I am reluctant to accept historic comparisons which do not recognise the fact we live in an unprecedented time.

The process of European integration has now gone far enough that old remedies, such as currency devaluations and trade protectionism, are not viable solutions.

At the same time, solutions based on the traditional social-democratic vision of the big State are in my view outdated too, not only because resources are tight but also because big, state-led programmes have not always achieved what was hoped for.

It is within this context that Labour needs to develop a new narrative on Europe and I think the way to achieve this is by endorsing the original spirit of the Lisbon Strategy: to re-establish the social element as a key factor of growth.

Firstly, the EU is a single market, and it is in our interest to pursue a concerted social agenda among all member states. Equalising the social conditions of workers means ensuring we avoid a race to the bottom, which would ultimately affect us all. The reality is that the trend in reducing rights has already started. 

Secondly, we need to compete in the wider world. In 2006 I became head of human rights for Labour sister party in Italy, and I have since advocated that if we, as Europe, want to compete with, for example, China — a country which does not combine growth with rights — we cannot follow the same path, and would not want to.

Having recognised the importance of the social element as a key factor of growth, we can relish the challenge of developing a new social agenda in these tough times.

My argument applies very well to women: maternity rights as well as the provision of adequate and affordable childcare (topics which have always been at the very heart of the Lisbon agenda) are social priorities which will trigger growth. History shows us that removing the obstacles to women’s full participation in the labour market is a key factor for growth and the creation of wealth for households.

This is why I believe the European social agenda can give Labour the bedrock for a new narrative on Europe, so long as we restore its original spirit and we make it work in today’s tough times.

There are still a few tickets available for "Social Europe: Worth Fighting For?" on Saturday 25th February. Visit the Fabian Society website to get yours today.

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