On April 28, 2016, the Amsterdam Centre for Contemporary European Studies (ACCESS EUROPE) and the Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies (AMCIS) have organized a symposium on “Social Justice and the European Union”. This article present a summary of the first part of the event, which focused on the normative underpinnings of justice and solidarity within the European Union. Talks were held by Frank Vandenbroucke (University of Amsterdam), Philippe Van Parijs (Catholic University of Louvain), and Maurizio Ferrera (University of Milan).
The problem of justice within the EU
Since the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, it is a commonplace for political philosophers to think that, as truth is of systems of thought, justice is the first virtue of social institutions. However, when thinking about justice, political philosophers have been interested in understanding how this concept is to be applied either within national states, or at the global level. Indeed, the question of what duties we have towards others, both in distributive and recognition terms, has traditionally concerned citizens inhabiting the same state. Moreover, in the last years, the perspective has changed and has been enlarged to comprehend the global sphere. So, given the intermediate nature of the EU, which is not a state, but refers to a particular and precise part of the world, it is important to understand whether it is possible and desirable to have a theory of justice designed for it. In particular, do we need a conception of justice that applies specifically to the EU? And should principles of justice for the EU differ from those that apply at the national level? What kind of solidarity should inform the politics of the Union? And which conception of reciprocity should inform the relations among member states and among citizens of different member states?
The three speakers of the symposium attempted to provide some answers to these questions. First, Frank Vandenbroucke presented his idea of social Europe and defended his conviction that such social union should not only support national welfare states in some of their key functions, but also guide the substantive development of national welfare states by proposing common standards and objectives. Second, Philippe Van Parijs, by drawing on the distinction between cooperative and distributive justice, argued that justice should be considered a matter of opportunities, and defended a complex conception of national borders. Third, Maurizio Ferrera proposed a realist, practice-dependent approach to the problem of justice within the EU, and defended the idea of the EU as a community of neighbours, engaged in the project of securing values and political goods.
The idea of Social Europe
Frank Vandenbroucke argued for the need of a coherent conception of a “European Social Union”, in order to secure an idea of the EU as a successful union of flourishing welfare states, in accordance with its normative foundations and values. It is important to understand that, for Vandenbroucke, the EU should not become a welfare state itself. Rather, the EU should be conceived and transformed into a transnational institution apt to, on one hand, support national welfare states systematically, with respect to their most important and basic functions (for example, that of the stabilization of society) and, on the other, foster particular standards and objectives all members states should aspire to reach. In this sense, member states would have to decide the best means available to them to implement the policies, which would nonetheless be framed at the supranational level.
In order to build solidarity across the Union, we need to embrace a dualistic perspective, comprehensive of both a pan-European and a national point of view.
According to Vandenbroucke, such a European Social Union is not only desirable, but also necessary. To understand this point, it is crucial, first, to realize that the current monetary union is incomplete. Given the financial crisis and the fact that members belonging to the same currency area face a trade-off between symmetry and flexibility, solidarity among member states (including even temporary fiscal transfers) is required. Second, it is important to foster social harmonizations, so to contrast pressure on social developments. In this sense, EU citizens are to accept the free mobility of workers across member states and the need for it to be regulated into a coherent and unified social order. Finally, economic convergence and cohesion on a European scale is fundamental to improve the lives of individuals living in the EU. For these reasons, Vandenbroucke concluded that, in order to build solidarity across the Union, we need to embrace a dualistic perspective, comprehensive of both a pan-European and a national point of view, according to which social relations across members states and social relations within member states matter per se. In the end, this is akin to the ideas of the founding fathers of the EU and the conviction that convergence and domestic cohesion are crucial for the development of the Union.
The need for utopia
For his argument, Philippe Van Parijs proposed a distinction between two different interpretations of justice: cooperative and distributive. The former concerns the fair sharing of some cooperative surplus, so that the political community is seen as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. The latter, on the other hand, concerns possibilities, opportunities, freedoms, etc. in the sense that it is not so much about outcomes, but rather a complex mix between opportunities and responsibilities, modelled after the rule of the MAXIMIN, as conceptualized within a Rawlsian framework. According to Van Parijs, the problem with cooperative justice—in particular if applied to the EU—is that it presupposes a background of entitlements, which are hard to pinpoint and define.
The role of the political philosopher is also to provide utopias, which may change people’s mind and prepare the ground for new developments in the future.
Van Parijs argued also that a conception of distributive justice should apply globally. But then what about national borders? According to him, borders are of value for they constitute a form of protection for institutions that are necessary to implement justice. The idea is that states and supranational institutions (as for example the EU) are tools, they constitute means to achieve certain purposes, in particular those concerning justice. And if we are to tackle the question whether the EU is a good and efficient tool to realize justice, the answer cannot but be complex. According to Van Parijs, the Union enables the establishment of free movement across its member state and, thus, enhances freedom and equality of opportunity. However, at the same time, it undermines the capacity for member states to redistribute within them. This is why the EU should be reformed so to really realize justice. And to those sceptical about the possibility to bring such a change at the EU level, Van Parijs answered that the role of the political philosopher is also to provide utopias, which may change people’s mind and prepare the ground for new developments in the future.
A realist, practice-dependent perspective
Maurizio Ferrera started his presentation from the recognition of the existence of a panoply of values underpinning the normative project of the EU. Drawing from the Lisbon Treaty, we know that the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, non-discrimination, justice, solidarity, etc. However, the political sustainability of the EU’s normative project lies in some necessary political values that are to be secured: legitimacy, stability, compliance, and order. Such political values are prior to the other values, for the former constitute the framework where the latter can be achieved. The problem is that there are different specific contents and mixes of panoply that are compatible with the necessary political values, and same trade-off cannot help to arise. From this awareness, Ferrera defended a realist, practice-dependent approach, namely an idea of social Europe that is not idealistic and it is developed from the existing functions and aims of the EU itself.
The EU, as it is currently designed, cannot be considered adequate and effective. Indeed, it is focused only on some peculiar economic values, and its principles and policies are inefficiently shaped.
The starting point of Ferrera’s argument is the analysis of the point and purpose the EU, namely its nature and ontology. From there, it is possible to propose an analysis of the EU-mediated social relations (as for example those between creditor and debtor member states). From here, Ferrera defended the idea of the EU as a community of neighbours, engaged in the project of constructing an ever-closer Union in order to achieve and secure the values constituting the panoply. Moreover, drawing from Weber’s idea of “sober brotherhood” and the Kantian ideal of hospitality, he argued for the need to find mediating principles between existing rules and general principles of solidarity and justice. Finally, Ferrera argued that to this aim, the EU, as it is currently designed, cannot be considered adequate and effective. Indeed, it is focused only on some peculiar economic values, and its principles and policies are inefficiently shaped. For Ferrera, a real European Social Union should provide the tools to optimize panoply, in particular justice, solidarity and cohesion, and to do so it should secure the necessary political values of legitimacy, stability, compliance, and order.
Photo Credits CC: Richard Toller