Thoughts on Social Welfare in Europe

Posted on 07. May 2012

by Zuzana Novakova

Zuzana Novakova NEWSome ideas catch us unprepared to react because they seem alien to the paradigm we think in. Perhaps this is due to mental maps, those plots we all use in some form, as schemes for filtering information such that confirming ideas get incorporated, while incompatible ones are filtered out. My former colleagues at a Brazilian NGO were passionate about defending ‘bolsa familia’, one of the well-known contemporary programs of unconditional basic income. In line with the new left movements around Latin America they considered it wise to pursue policies towards gradually closing the scissors of inequality intheir society. It simply fitted their mental map. Our context here in Europe is diametrically different, no doubt. Yet I wonder what our mental maps are, and why? What do various Europeans think about when the concept of unconditional basic income.1

The idea of unconditional basic income inevitably opens a much wider debate on social justice and the distribution of wealth, be it in national societies or on the European level. Experience and the literature agree that some level of social justice is necessary for upholding freedoms, as a necessary though not a sufficient condition. A variety of social welfare systems in Europe developed to respond to such a need. Nowadays, citizens take to the streets to preserve these welfare measures in the face of ongoing financial and economic crisis, indicating a wider societal crisis coupled with questioning the legitimacy of the current political and socio-economic direction. The welfare concept tends to be ‘adjusted only’ – in light of austerity measures that cut down on existing programs and services. What tends to be left out of the discourse is that the current welfare systems were a product of structurally different conditions and needs in the past and are unsustainable under the changed conditions of today, implying that a ‘rethink’ of our conceptualization of social justice and a search for innovative approaches might be useful, even inevitable.

What is the appropriate level of analysis for such a discussion? The state, as it traditionally has been? Maybe at the European level, with a view to harmonizing social welfare policy? The social sphere and its questions of social quality within the ideal and practice of European integration has for a long time been the ugly duckling of EU policies. Measures often seem to tackle symptoms rather than the roots of the various systemic patterns of inequality across the EU, both in terms of spatial discrepancies (like between and among regions) or ‘temporary’ inequalities like disparity along the life cycle (e.g. structural disadvantages of youth or the elderly). A cohesive approach in European social policy has never appealed as much as economic and monetary integration have; and not every European citizen finds himself enabled by his/her conditions and environment to benefit equally from developments within the ever closer Union.

Is there a need for a more solid approach? Partial ‘solutions’ like emergency food redistribution to those below the poverty line do help the needy from day-to-day, but only patch the wound rather than heal the problem of persistent systemic inequalities. There is a need to tackle EU-wide structural inequalities in order to empower individuals to not only survive decently within a unifying Europe but to take advantage of latent opportunities, build upon them and foster growth in an innovative manner. The EU has been in many ways a showcase for the elasticity of the ‘limits of the possible’ on a global scale; perhaps weathering the storms of crisis could be the right time to extend this ambition into the area of social policies.

Here I do not suggest that unconditional basic income is the right solution. Rather,it is only the entry point to exploring and remapping our mental maps. Starting from this topic (and likewise any other redistributive measures), opens up a debate about what toolkit is needed to take a path towards more sustainable, more equitable-and perhaps more just-growth in the EU.


1. In our FutureLab discussions we defined unconditional basic income (UBI) as follows: “Every person gets a fixed amount of money from the state every month. The exact amount and how it changes with age, location and rising income are up for discussion. The UBI would be sufficiently high so that other benefit schemes (unemployment benefits, pension, etc.) could be phased out. However, everybody gets it without conditions and can spend it at his/her discretion.”