Social Policy and the Tensions between National Traditions and European Reorganization

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Foundation] and Villa Vigoni – Deutsch-italienisches Zentrum für europäische Exzellenz [German-Italian Centre for European Excellence]

Today, social policy in Europe is subject to the tensions that result from national structures, entitlements based on European law, and societal challenges that arise from the transformation of industrial capitalism. This project will explore these tensions within the context of three trilateral research conferences.

Social policy in the European Union has become a realm of multilevel governance par excellence, in which the core functions of supply and redistribution have remained in the hands of the nation-state. How resources are redistributed, which sociopolitical benefits exist, and especially who is entitled to benefits and who is not, are issues that can no longer be negotiated as sovereign decisions by each member state. In these negotiation processes, which simultaneously contribute to constituting and legitimizing the European level of governance, highly diverse welfare-state models and disparate welfare cultures that have evolved historically in a range of different sociopolitical practices come together. The Italian, French, and German welfare states differ on the one hand, in qualitative terms, with respect to who is entitled to benefits, what societal objective determines social policy interventions, which entitlements are considered justified, and finally, who is responsible for responding to claims. On the other hand, quantitative differences in the level of benefits in these welfare states can be identified.

Traditional comparative research on welfare states attributes very different characteristics and institutional peculiarities―in addition to a variety of shared features―to Germany, France and Italy. Despite having comparable systems of organization according to occupation, and despite a substantial centering of wage labor in their social policies, each of these three countries embodies its own category of conservative-corporatist welfare state character as a continental European country, to use Esping-Andersen’s diction for welfare state typology.

Whereas Germany established a comprehensive, largely state-organized system of social security at the end of the nineteenth century that was highly differentiated on the basis of occupational groups, the French social state is a considerably more recent development. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, that France introduced fundamental elements of the welfare state based on the mutualités (occupational group associations for providing mutual insurance) that were comparable to the German model. In research on welfare states, Italy in turn represents the kind of rudimentary welfare state that characterizes southern European countries, in which family support networks and family ties play an important role. Although the state is at the center of social redistribution and compensatory benefits, it is considered, on the whole, to be too weak to adequately fulfill this role. Concepts of fairness and the levels of entitlement regarding the provision of public goods and social welfare benefits also vary greatly between Germany, France, and Italy.

Nevertheless, we can currently observe similar transformations in “welfare state arrangements” in all European welfare states.

First, due to increasing financial constraints resulting especially from demographic transition, individuals and their families are becoming the targets of sociopolitical reforms, including reforms on the European level. For example, claims filed for benefits are reviewed to see whether private funds can replace state support and be regulated by the market. This increasing “marketization” is leading to new configurations in assigning functions to private and public actors.
Second, a new trend towards “defamilization” can be observed that runs counter to the logic of social security in conservative welfare states. Current social policy no longer aims only to give temporary relief from the constraints of the market (decommodification)―for example in case of illness or specific biographical situations―but also strives to outsource the burden of family work and thus increase women’s participation in the labor market.
Third, there is a tendency in Germany, France, and Italy to “remoralize” social policy. Sociopolitical reforms that lead to marketization and defamilization are justified on moral grounds, rather than as political answers to global economic and sociodemographic structural changes.

The research conferences will focus on specific sociopolitical controversies in which institutional and social players describe sociopolitical arrangements as problematic and investigate the European bases of knowledge mobilized by those involved in these controversies. This focus is intended to contribute to strengthening historical and sociological research on Europe that takes into account sociopolitical Europeanization processes in areas of practice that are outside core areas of EU policymaking and that set aside teleological as well as elitist ideas about what constitutes a right or good Europe. Cooperation between researchers from Italy, France, and Germany also aims to facilitate a transnational understanding of current sociopolitical challenges and raise awareness of the impact of Europeanization processes at both the local and national level.

In conducting this work, the focus is especially on when and why social actors, in light of respective German, French, or Italian sociopolitical backgrounds, refer to Europe or refrain from doing so, and which semantics are assigned to Europe or rejected with respect to Europe during these processes.

In three phases, the following questions will be considered: What arenas of activity are determined by the German, French, and Italian traditions and routines in social policy and in the interests of which sociopolitical objectives? On what level (scale / échelle) is the legitimacy of sociopolitical claims decided upon and according to which criteria? And which options are available to the social actors involved to relate entitlement, individual needs, and general social developments to each other.

To address these questions, the first meeting will serve to promote a common understanding among the participants on the nature of these three welfare state models and cultures. At the center of the second meeting is the analysis of selected sociopolitical controversies in the three countries. The third meeting will explore the European knowledge bases that guide sociopolitical controversies in these three countries and are generated by them.

The project will be realized as a result of funding applications submitted by PD Dr. Nikola Tietze (Hamburg Institute for Social Research), Prof. Jay Rowell (MISHA – Maison des Sciences de l’Homme d’Alsace, Strasbourg), and Prof. Yuri Kazepov (DESP – Dipartimento di Economia, Societa Politica [Department of Economics, Society, and Politics], University of Urbino).

The conferences are to be held once a year in the Villa Vigoni over a period of three years. They are funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Foundation], and Villa Vigoni – Deutsch-italienisches Zentrum für europäische Exzellenz [German-Italian Centre for European Excellence].