3 December 2018

Crafting the ESU – Towards a roadmap for delivery

We have an Economic and Monetary Union. We must pronounce the birth of a fully-fledged institutional counterpart: a European Social Union (ESU). The year 2017 sealed the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), an important and valuable step forward, but not enough.

At the end of his introductory contribution to this debate, Vandenbroucke invites a reflection on priority selection and on a possible “roadmap for delivery” – building in particular on the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR). In this contribution, I want to pick up this invitation and make a proposal on how the bold intellectual idea of a European Social Union could be turned into institutional practice.

In my view, the roadmap should start with a simple, yet farsighted and politically ambitious step: linking together in a creative way a number of building blocks which are already available at various levels of government, under the new symbolic umbrella of ESU, precisely. I will accompany my proposal with a free-standing “political” justification of this move. So far, the debate has mainly justified it in functional and normative terms: ESU would improve the coherence and performance of the EMU; it would rebalance the EU towards those social values which are enshrined in the Treaties.

Building on both arguments, I will add that ESU is badly needed for political reasons as well: it would re-stabilize the EU polity by providing a symbolic and practical “glue” for restoring “togetherness” and thus diffuse support and legitimation for the integration process.

The European Pillar of Social Rights: from promise to delivery – An introduction to the ESU public forum debate

We need an effective ‘roadmap for delivery’ of the European Pillar of Social Rights, based on the complementarity of existing EU instruments and a well-considered selection of priority initiatives.


Piecing ESU together from what is already available

There is a lot of ambiguity in the widely used term of ‘Social Europe’. As argued by Vandenbroucke, the latter does not designate a clear and definite institutional entity – as is also the case with the similarly vague notion of the European Social Model. These ‘names’ are not fit for purpose, as they lump together the horizontal dimension (“le social dans l’Europe”) and the vertical dimension (“l’Europe dans le social”) of social protection without clarifying their mutual connection and interdependence, their division of labour and potential synergies and, last but not least, without outlining a comprehensive system of governance. The reconciliation of the economic and social sides of integration must involve a far-sighted initiative of linguistic and symbolic innovation as a precondition for institution building.

We have an Economic and Monetary Union. We must pronounce the birth of a fully-fledged institutional counterpart: a European Social Union (ESU). The year 2017 sealed the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), an important and valuable step forward, but not enough. We need ESU as a wider container, certainly comprising the EPSR, but not coterminous with it. In the intellectual realm, the ESU already ‘exists’. It is now time to fill this expression with recognizable empirical contents. I suggest that we already have a sufficient set of ingredients to start the re-assembling process and thus move from the symbolic to the policy realm.

Here is a tentative list of such ingredients:

  1. The ensemble of social protection systems of the Member States. National systems still display notable differences in their specific schemes and institutions, in their logic of market correcting, the ranges of risks covered. But they are now faced with similar and in some cases common adaptive changes. Moreover, they are increasingly differentiated within themselves, especially in the social service sectors. As revealed by the growing profusion of social initiatives and programs at the regional and local levels institutional distinctions ten to blur, giving rise instead to new and hybrid mixes of policies and approaches (Halvorsen and Hvinden, 2016). The intra-EU pluralism of welfare regimes is thus increasingly contained both from the above (their common commitment to the principles of the social market economy and the social dialogue, enshrined in the Treaties) and from below (sub-national hybridizations). Since their key feature – in the context of our discussion – is the close link between social protection institutions and domestic territories and jurisdictions, we can define this component of a forthcoming ESU as the National Social Spaces.
  2. The ensemble of social schemes and policies characterized by a cross-border element. Most of these initiatives involve regions, under the legal umbrella of European territorial cooperation. But another interesting development on this front is the creation (mainly by the social partners) of cross-border occupational insurance schemes for pensions and health care benefits. This component may be called Transnational Social Spaces.
  3. The novel membership space –coterminous with the EU external borders – within which all the bearers of EU citizenship enjoy a common ‘title’ bestowed upon them by the Union in order to access the benefits and services of the place in which they choose to settle. Starting from the 1970s, the EU has had a structured legal framework for the coordination of the social security systems of the Member States, and since 2011 a directive regulates the cross-border mobility of patients. Let us define this component as the EU Mobility Space.
  4. The ensemble of those supranational policies that have an explicit social purpose, be they of a regulative or (re)distributive nature, directly funded by the EU budget (if they imply spending) and based on either hard or soft law. This component is the EU Social Policy in its proper sense.
  5. The set of objectives of a social nature contained in the Lisbon Treaty, including those that allocate responsibilities between levels of government and define decision-making procedures in this field. Given the supremacy of EU law over national law, such objectives and rules constitute the general framework that guides the other four components. We can call this component the EU fundamental social principles.

The five components are all in place and in flux. They do not have equal standing, of course. The national social spaces will keep their predominant role for a long time to come. We know however that integration has made their boundaries more porous and flexible, their policies more adaptive to interaction and coordination dynamics, more plastic at the margins of innovation and experimentation. Prior to the crisis, an overall process of mutual hybridization and at least partial convergence was clearly underway – slow-moving, but likely to have a systematic impact (Hemerijck, 2013). The current decade has largely reversed this trend (Andor, 2017; Palier, Rovny, and Rovny, 2018).

Thus, today the challenge is to rescue convergence by enhancing overall steering capacities, so that the five components can be made to work in sync, with mutual reinforcements. Addressing this challenge also implies rethinking the relationship between ESU and Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), in order to limit reciprocal negative externalities. If this process is to be steered according to the EU fundamental social principles, then we need to devise a broad ESU template capable of sustaining two different types of solidarity: a pan-European solidarity between countries (and all individual EU citizens qua tales) centred on supranational institutions and the more traditional forms of national solidarity, centred on domestic (and regional/local) institutions.

Vandenbroucke has already made it clear that ESU would be something very different from a federal welfare state, as we observe it today in the so-called historical federations (such as the United States and Switzerland) (Obinger et al. 2005). In the latter, the process of bottom-up unification took place at a time when the constituent units had barely started to address social problems. Although with some delay compared to unitary states, central authorities were thus able to standardize and/or establish ex novo federal social schemes and programs. The construction of a European Social Union would take place within an entirely different developmental context, i.e. on the backdrop of extensive nation- based welfare states. This historical fact sets objective limits to ambitious forms of supranationalisation, as already predicted by Stein Rokkan many years ago (Ferrera, 2019).

Thus, ESU would be an unprecedented process of “coming together” of already existing welfare states, allowed to maintain their ‘legitimate diversity’ (Scharpf 2002), but (i) committed to mutual adaptation based on jointly defined criteria and (ii) open to engage in some risk pooling. The fact that the EU has its own budget, fed by semi-automatic contributions and “own resources” already sets it apart from any other type of multi-state regional organization, and implicitly signals the presence of a modicum of social federalism – based on inter-territorial transfers – within its institutional architecture. But compared to the historical federations, ESU-building will be a novel adventure of large-scale institutional experimentation.

Anton Hemerijck has dubbed ESU as a “holding environment” (Hemerijck, 2013), i.e. “a zone of resilience based on shared values and a common purpose, matched by competent institutions, in times of painful adaptation. The function of a ‘holding environment’ is to mitigate stress and thereby uphold the integrity of national welfare states, but also to maintain pressure to mobilize rather than overwhelm domestic reforms with only disciplinary intrusion”. The concept of holding environment comes from child neuro-psychiatry (Wincott, 1964) and has been subsequently elaborated by the management sciences.

For the latter, a holding environment is “a social system that serves to keep people engaged with one another in spite of the divisive forces generated by adaptive work” (Heifetz et al., 2009, p.305). Resting on a mix of collective safety goals and mutual collaboration, on one hand, but also systemic pressures to engage with country-specific policy problems and institutional recalibration, the notion of holding environment has indeed high analytical and symbolic potential in the context of our ESU discussion. The challenge is how to fill it with empirical content, building – as propose –on those institutional components which are already available.

The word “environment” evokes a notion already used above: “space”. ESU would be a political and institutional space (more precisely, a meta-space), in two senses. First, and obviously, it would be a territorial space, including all the Member States and their citizens/residents, and with an outer border coterminous with the EU frontiers. Second, ESU would be a membership space, tying its participants to the respect of common values, the pursuit of common objectives and compliance with rights and obligations in a wide sense.

By providing a new institutional assemblage and a new Gestalt, ESU could overcome the ambiguities of Social Europe. In the first place, it would clarify once and (hopefully) for all that in an integrating Europe social protection (and the underlying normative objectives of ‘solidarity’ and ‘social justice’) has at least three distinct dimensions: national, trans-national and supranational. These dimensions can potentially clash with each other, but this is not inevitable, provided they are properly recognized as such and deliberately reconciled. Secondly, and as a consequence of this, ESU would be based on the premise that social protection must move towards a multi-level architecture, allowing for a network (rather than a hierarchy) of links among the five components, to favour synergies and mutual adjustments. While the internal articulation of ESU is obviously key to its success, its construction must not lose sight of inter-institutional relations, so to speak. As mentioned, if ESU is to become the counterpart of EMU within the overall EU framework, then the two Unions must gradually come to terms with each other, in a logic of ‘institutional complementarity’.

The creative re-assemblage of the five components will require demanding exercises of political and institutional imagination. What is needed are both grand visions and circumstantial policy ideas to serve as seeds or wedges for change. It took about two decades – the Seventies and Eighties – to generate, by trial and error, a detailed and consensual blueprint for the EMU. The design of this blueprint ran in parallel with policy experimentations and incremental innovations (e.g. the monetary ‘snake’ of the Seventies, followed by the European Monetary System in 1979). Even though we have a ‘name’ which is fit for purpose, the construction of ESU has just made its first steps in the intellectual realm – and only as a general aspiration. Even a brief discussion of the above-mentioned building blocks would fall way beyond the scope of this contribution. Let me, however, make some remarks about the latest institutional innovation within the realm of EU social policy: the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR).

The European Pillar of Social Rights: an operational arm of fundamental social principles?

What role can the EPSR play within the context of a wider European Social Union? Vandenbroucke is right in suggesting that the fate of this ambitious institutional innovation will be key for the European project in the coming years. The most important ingredient (and also the most politically appealing) of the new expression is that of European rights. The legal status of the EPSR is, however, ambiguous. The text speaks about ‘principles and rights’ and specifies that the Pillar reaffirms some of the rights already present in the Union’s acquis and that it also adds new principles, which however require dedicated measures or legislation in order to become legally enforceable. This ambiguity has led some commentators to consider the new initiative as mere phrase-mongering (see Sabato and Vanhercke, 2017 for a review of positions). This judgement is however too hasty. To gauge the significance of the EPSR and its potential in respect of ESU, some conceptual clarifications are in order.

What are ‘rights’, exactly? Following the tradition of Max Weber, we can define rights as sources of power (Machtquellen). There are three distinct types of power resources which back the actual exercise of any right. First, there are normative resources. Holding a right means having legitimate reasons to claim compliance by others: horizontally from fellow-citizens (e.g. non-discrimination in the workplace) and vertically from political authorities (e.g. fair treatment by social administrations). Secondly, there are enforcement resources: if compliance is not obtained, the right holder can activate legal coercion. Thirdly, there are instrumental resources: the availability of practical conditions for a full exercise of rights. In the case of social entitlements, for example, the state sets up social insurance systems and networks of public services, provides information, advice, procedures for accessing and delivering benefits and so on.

While the second type of resources (enforcement) is what makes rights (and, by extension, citizenship) ‘hard’, in contemporary liberal-democratic societies we should not underestimate the importance of the other two types: normative and especially instrumental resources. The former operate at the ideational and motivational level, while the latter facilitate the actualization of rights. In addition, both may play a role in the process of rights adjudication in Courts of law. Amartya Sen has repeatedly highlighted the crucial importance of instrumental resources, especially with regard to fundamental rights. During a famine, my “right to subsistence” may not be worth anything – even assuming the presence of a legal guarantee in the strict sense – if the state does not intervene to facilitate the availability of food in the area where I happen to reside (Sen, 1981).

Especially in certain concrete situations, instrumental resources are crucial to ensure that the power conferred by a right is transformed into full “ableness” (Morris, 1987). Finally, let us not forget that both normative and instrumental resources play an important role in the judicial process. We know that even when it adopts binding norms that indirectly impinge on national citizenship, the EU cannot provide enforcement resources directly to citizens. At most, hard law imposes an obligation for a member state to provide EU norms with an effective legal form according to national practices and institutions. The existence of a supranational Court of Justice implies that citizens can hold their national authorities as imputable of noncompliance. Thus even hard law confers merely procedural and not substantial guarantees. This is why in EU law-making normative resources (if only through soft law) and, in particular, instrumental resources are de facto almost as important as enforcement resources. I suggest that the main role of the EPSR in terms of citizen empowerment could and should result, initially, from its capacity to exploit in a coherent and systematic way its motivational and right-actualization potentials.

The EU already offers a wide array of programs and services that facilitate the exercise of social rights legislated by supranational, national and even subnational authorities. Many programs underpin intra-EU mobility (e.g. EURES, ERASMUS and EHIC), others make possible, complement and strengthen national initiatives, e.g. through the structural and cohesion funds, some sector-specific funds – such as the European Globalization Adjustment Fund (EGF) (1) or the Fund for Aid to Deprived People (FEAD) (2) – or dedicated initiatives such as the Youth Guarantee. The added value of the EPSR should be that it acts as a broad framework capable of linking, enhancing and expanding such types of initiatives as instruments for the actualization of the Pillar’s rights, leveraging on the ideational and motivational power of its normative principles. The recent proposal – explicitly linked to the EPSR – for a Regulation for the establishment of a European Labour Authority (ELA) is a good illustration of the way in which the Pillar can become consequential at the grassroots level.

In the ESU context, the EPSR could thus be seen as a sort of intermediary between the EU fundamental social principles, on the one hand, and all the other ESU components, on the other. In its preamble, the Pillar makes explicit and detailed reference to the pertinent articles of the Treaties. Art 12 of the Preamble states that:

“The aim of the European Pillar of Social Rights is to serve as a guide towards efficient employment and social outcomes when responding to current and future challenges which are directly aimed at fulfilling people’s essential needs, and towards ensuring better enactment and implementation of social rights”.

In this formulation, the purpose of ‘guiding’ nicely relates to the above-mentioned ideational and motivational dimension; the purpose of ‘ensuring enactment and implementation’ relates, in its turn, to the facilitation and actualization dimension. In other words, if appropriately and strategically exploited and despite its soft character, the EPSR could play an important role within a future ESU. Even prior to that, it could already start to pave the way for its eventual establishment. Figure 1 offer my visualization of how the ESU might look like and the place of the EPSR within its overall framework.

Figure 1. The European Social Union: a visualization


Pan-European solidarity: necessary, but how feasible?

The ESU debate agrees that the latter should rest on two types of solidarity, guided by different criteria: a pan-European solidarity between countries and between individual EU citizens centred on supranational institutions; and the more traditional forms of national solidarity, centred on domestic (and regional/local) institutions. Pan-European solidarity is the most delicate question and has become even thornier in the wake of the crisis. Academic discussions on this topic have mainly concentrated and rested on either normative or functional arguments. The former aim at defending (or rejecting) the principled desirability of cross-national solidarity given the deep network of ties now linking the Member States. The latter try to establish whether a proper (efficient and effective) functioning of both the monetary union and the single market does require a number of “social corollaries”.

As argued by Vandenbroucke in his introduction, these would imply some risk pooling and the presence of some market-correcting and centralized “visible hand”. Both types of arguments acknowledge the ultimately political nature of the pan-EU solidarity issue by underlining the need for consensus and common will by national governments. But they fall short of spelling out which exactly are the political obstacles to institutional change and how they might be overcome. Even prior to this, normative and functional discussions skirt a more fundamental question: what would be the political implications of ESU? Is it possible to outline a freestanding political justification of this proposal? It is a tenet of political theory in all its variants that a territorially organized collectivity cannot survive and prosper without a diffuse support by its members, i.e. a set of general and positive evaluative orientations towards the collectivity as such and its authority structure – a diffuse support capable of motivating compliance beyond self-interest.

Historically, organized solidarity came to play a key role for political legitimation by nurturing positive feelings about the effectiveness and fairness of the territorial government. Just like external security and internal peace, the welfare state has gradually established itself as a basic political good, i.e. an instrument serving the purpose of facilitating social cooperation, managing conflicts, sustaining generalized compliance and thus, ultimately, “keeping the polity together”. There can be little doubt that the EU and the monetary union are currently suffering from a clear legitimacy crisis: populist parties are not just questioning EU policies but challenge the EU polity as such – and Brexit is going to tear apart an important piece of the latter. To what extent can we conceive of ESU (and specifically, its pan-European solidarity component) as an instrument for re-legitimation of the EU and thus as an antidote against political centrifugation?

The answer must come in two steps. As mentioned, legitimation does not hinge on specific support, i.e. interest-based approval of contingent functional performance, but overall output performance does matter. A basic social norm in contemporary democracies is that institutions and public policies must abide by a logic of instrumental effectiveness in respect of voters’ needs and aspirations. In the eyes of a significant number of citizens and parties, the problem with the EU is, precisely, that “it does not work”, it is out of sync in respect of popular demands and needs. The functional justification for ESU (specifically: the introduction of some EU level automatic stabilizers) is precisely that the latter is necessary to re-establish effective performance of the monetary union and the single market. ESU’s contribution to the re-establishment of functional performance would thus operate ipso facto also as a vehicle of political re-legitimation and re-stabilization of the EU polity. Though analytically distinct, the political justification of ESU would rest on the shoulder of the functional one.

Diffuse support rests however not only on effectiveness but also on fairness. Citizens must feel that the territorial government abides by the general norm of representing in some way the collective interest and takes care of all sectors/strata of the population, however weak and peripheral. One of the indictments made by Eurosceptic formations is, precisely, that the Union does not represent collective interests and that it does not rule according to fairness. Note that in the political argument what matters are not general conceptions of the common good or distributive justice, but the empirical presence of widely shared beliefs that the government (the EU) is indeed credibly inspired by norms of fairness. Along the fairness dimension, the political justification becomes free-standing in respect of both normative and functional arguments.

A possible objection could be that in the present situation the proposal (let alone the construction) of a more solidaristic EU would aggravate the legitimation problem rather than solving it. Any move towards a “Transfer Union” would in fact increase and embitter existing political conflicts around the EU. To the extent that it is genuinely political (and not functional or normative in disguise), this objection must be broken down in two distinct propositions:

  1. the EU lacks the cultural preconditions (in a very broad sense) for a strategy of political legitimation involving any significant form of organized collective solidarity;
  2. given the extant conflict constellation and the rise of Euroscepticism, no step in this direction is politically feasible.

Both propositions rest more or less explicitly on the thesis according to which there has been a clear shift from ‘permissive consensus’ to ‘constraining dissensus’ within national public opinions, emblematically represented by the rise of Euroscepticism (Hooghe and Marks, 2009). Though empirically grounded, the constraining dissensus argument has two limits. First, by focusing on the public opinion side, it soft-pedals the role played by the elite (including mainstream elites) in having prepared a fertile terrain for the voters’ dissensus. Second, it tends to overestimate the extent and depth of such dissensus. Both points are key to a realistic political justification. It may well be the case, in fact, that the legitimation crisis has resulted from elite choices and mistakes, thus being largely self-inflicted. And it might equally be the case that there are more cultural predispositions for pan-European solidarity than meet the critic’s eyes.

An increasing body of empirical data seems to support the latter hypothesis. A mass survey conducted in the Fall of 2016 in the context of the EU-funded REScEU project (Ferrera and Pellegata, 2017), shows that wide majorities of citizens would indeed favour steps in this direction, including in Germany. Popular support for a larger EU budget aimed at promoting economic and social investments, for helping people in severe poverty and for providing financial help to member states experiencing a rise in unemployment has majoritarian support in all of the six countries covered by the survey: Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Poland.

Results have been confirmed by a similar survey covering also Austria, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia (Gerhards et al., 2018) and by a more recent YouGov survey (Genschel and Hemerijck, 2018). More generally, a recent investigation by the Pew Research Center has found that pro-EU “mainstream” voters (as opposed to supporters of “populist” views and parties on both the left and right) still constitute significant majorities in Sweden (80%), the Netherlands (72%), Germany (68%), France (53%) and Spain (51%). Counting undecided respondents, populist voters do not reach the majority in Italy either (Pew, 2018). Survey data must be handled with care. Yet, it can be at least suggested that a ‘silent majority’ seems to potentially available for supporting a strategy of realignment between the deep togetherness created by the EMU, on the one hand, and the institutional and symbolic architecture of the EU, on the other. The absence of such a strategy represents a clear failure of European political elites.

The REScEU élite survey – Podcast

As shown by a second survey of the RESCEU project, European elites are much less solidarity-prone that their voters (Ferrera and Pellegata, forthcoming). As mentioned above, elective (choice based) partnerships based on forward-looking objectives turn onto fully fledged families of nations to the extent that their leaders engage in some fraternal nudging. The exercise of ‘socioemotional leadership’, capable of developing a collective fraternal idioculture has become difficult in a world increasingly based on fluid social relationships, self-seeking behaviours and rational-legal authority (Brint, 2001). But the EMU elite has made long steps in the opposite direction, emphasizing difference and apartness between national communities and their governments, denigrating, also symbolically, any mechanism of mutual support, promoting a historically unprecedented rule-based formalization of political authority: almost a deliberate recipe for undermining the conditions of polity maintenance.

I mentioned above that the EU cannot develop into a fully-fledged federal welfare state, but must at least put in place a “holding environment” for a safe functioning and adaptive flourishing of national welfare states. In my view, such an environment should also serve a “polity maintenance” function, i.e. be conceived and pursued with a view to safeguarding the Union’s survival and durability. Several proposals to enhance cross-national economic solidarity are currently under discussion among EU leaders and institutions. Most of them have already been discussed in Vandenbroucke’s introduction. These innovations are currently discussed under the umbrella of EMU governance. By making the latter more transfer-oriented and socially friendly, they would create valuable institutional complementarities with ESU. They could actually be thought of as bridges between the two. And with the passing of time, a strengthened ESU might be able to steer the functioning of these new instruments according not only to a logic of economic efficiency but also of social fairness.


The official establishment of the ESU is of course merely presumptive and its functional and political effectiveness may well be disputable. Those who nurture more clamorous aspirations are likely to be disappointed, at least initially, as the ESU would not be much more than a formal re-assemblage of already-existing elements. But in politics a lot can be achieved through symbolic action and small policy changes: a mere discourse about ESU, an act of ‘naming’ and a smart packaging of its first measures could have a significant impact.

We should also remember that national welfare states did not come about with big bangs: with a few exceptions, their beginnings were quite modest and it took a long time to build momentum. Institution building resulted from social and political conflict around redistributive issues. Conflict dynamics served both to cement horizontal alliances among the disadvantaged and to promote vertical exchanges between rulers and ruled. Solidarity and political justice became irreversibly intertwined through the democratic process. In the historical federations, claims of social justice intersected with claims of territorial justice. In some critical historical contingencies (the New Deal in America, World War II in Switzerland), big leaps forward in terms of both interpersonal social and inter-territorial solidarity resulted not only from bottom-up pressure from the workers’ movement but also from a top-down logic, based on the interests/wish of incumbent political authorities – local and federal – to preserve stability and consolidate polity in the face of acute functional challenges, social unrest or dire emergencies.

The most vocal players in Europe’s political arenas seem now to be Eurosceptic and supporters of souverainisme. As mentioned, survey data reveal that there are large ‘silent majorities’ who still support EU membership and more integration, including more pan-European solidarity. It is to be hoped that such voters will be able to find suitable candidates in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections. The latter will not be the last train for ESU. But it would certainly be a pity to miss it – and probably a huge political mistake.


(1) The European Globalisation Adjustment Fund was established in 2006 to provide support to people losing their jobs as a result of major structural changes in world trade patterns due to globalisation, e.g. when a large company shuts down or production is moved outside the EU, or as a result of the global economic and financial crisis.

(2) The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) was established in 2014 to support Member State measures of material assistance to the most deprived, accompanied by social inclusion measures (Madama, 2016).

Photo Credits CC Flickr: Calsidyrose

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