Social Europe- a fading dream?

EAPN Europe is a network of 32 national networks and 13 European organisations dedicated to combatting poverty, social exclusion and violations of economic, social and cultural rights. The definition of poverty is self-evident, it is the absence of sufficient income, housing, healthcare or education necessary to live a life of dignity.

EAPN Ireland is a member of the European Anti-Poverty Network, contributing to the development of policy positions on poverty related matters at European level while also working towards the eradication of poverty and inequality and the implementation of human rights in Ireland.

Human rights are about human dignity. Living in poverty, having no permanent home or experiencing reduced life chances undermines human dignity. The failure to reflect or make provision for the well-being and sustainability of minority cultures and the denial of a person’s sexual preferences are also human rights violations. Human rights are not confined to citizens, but are rights conferred by virtue of being human, so they are equally applicable to those seeking asylum or with leave to remain.

Influencing European policy

The European policy theatre has different layers. The European Commission develops policy ideas for consideration by the European Council (Prime Ministers of the member states) and the European Parliament. Not all policy areas fall under EU competence – taxation and education, for instance, are areas of national competence. Welfare regimes are also to a large extent a national responsibility, but must be cognisant of European law, such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Notwithstanding this separation of competencies, European Union policies, especially economic policies, which are overarching and far-reaching in their influence, have a huge effect on the shape, scope and focus of national policies including welfare, housing and banking. This impact can only be fully appreciated when ordinary citizens of member states come together to share their experiences as recipients of policy measures. Such an event happens each year in Brussels.

The 18th European Meeting of People Experiencing Poverty is funded by the European Commission and organised by EAPN Europe. The Meeting takes place over a number of days in November and is attended by participants from all the member states who then participate in a series of workshops, presentations and events designed to convey the issues and the priorities of those with a direct experience of poverty and human rights violations. The Meeting is useful both in terms of its direct purpose, to present an accurate depiction of poverty and the needs of people experiencing poverty, and less directly to assess the relative state of affairs across and between member countries.

The Nordic benchmark

If the Artic is the obvious benchmark of Earth’s well-being, then the Nordic countries are the social equivalent. Taking any indicator of social well-being, the Nordic countries almost inevitably come out best. Sweden, Finland, Norway (not a member but tied to the EU by treaties), Denmark, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes have traditionally operated out of a shared model of development that emphasises the liberal use of expansionary fiscal policy[1], income distribution, maximum labour force participation, gender equality and extensive welfare benefits. For these very reasons, the Nordic countries are the yardstick by which other countries measure their social standing. It was the Nordic model of integrated social and economic development that inspired the early European project.

Europe has long lost its interest in modelling itself on the Nordic countries, having replaced this interest with an obsessive application of neoliberalist economics. Neoliberalism is essentially a belief that everything should be commodified and brought into the market place, including public utilities, and labour. Neoliberals believe that this liberalising of the market must be facilitated by a loosening of regulation and the free movement of capital. Naturally, this unleashes endless opportunities for profit for those with the means to invest. The end result is the amassing of huge wealth by those who are already wealthy and the impoverishment of those with modest or little wealth. The impact of neoliberalism is visible to everybody. Accommodation and education costs have soared. Healthcare, childcare and transport have been commodified and well-being has declined for those unable to buy such services. Poverty is endemic among those on the margins – the homeless, those impacted by addiction, those parenting alone.

So how well have the Nordic countries resisted this neoliberal assault on their welfare systems?  Unsurprisingly, resistance has proved difficult. Denmark has privatised lots of its public services. Iceland’s health budget is under serious threat from those intent on undermining public healthcare and is experiencing a crisis in its mental healthcare and drugs and alcohol rehabilitation programmes.

The prevalence of minimal income jobs and a parallel growth of the ‘working poor’ is also undermining the Nordic workfare system, which traditionally provided strong welfare support coupled with measures to reinsert the unemployed into adequately paid jobs or retrain them as necessary for new employment opportunities. 

Housing in many of the Nordic states, with the possible exception of Finland, has also undergone a rapid commodification process and is now beyond the means of many families, especially for those who must rent. There is increasing deregulation of the rental sector as better market conditions are sought to encourage investment. There is also some shift towards the introduction of market-based rents for social housing, reinforcing the commodification process. In general people are now paying a greater percentage of their income on housing, in some cases an inordinate amount which is only made possible by state provided rent supports.

The Nordic countries have been able to maintain their traditionally high levels of equality through a redistribution of wealth, essentially through high taxation which funds investment in quality public services, including health and welfare. The privatisation of these services will result in a dilution of many public services thus raising inequality. Privatisation is only sustainable by creating a market cost for services, which will only happen by running down public provision.

The social consequences of privatisation in the Nordic countries will be profound. While Norway is well placed to maintain its quality social services, having amassed significant revenues from it oil resources, it too will be forced to maintain its competitiveness in a European market dominated by low labour costs and a reduced tax take. The cost in terms of safety and health will be considerable too. Inequality is growing in Denmark, crime has increased and mental health problems are becoming more prolific.

Balancing economic and social goals

The European Pillar of Social Rights sets out an aspiration to establish and maintain a level of social well-being within the European Union, while the Charter of Fundamental Rights lays out an ethical framework to defend the rights of citizens. The Pillar of Social Rights falls short in its possible implementation. While it will be monitored by the European Commission it is not a Directive and therefore does not carry the weight of European law. The Charter is a legal instrument of the EU binding the compliance of all member states, but it is weak and totally ignored by another element of European law, the European Central Bank (ECB), which regulates the banking and financial sector. The ECB creates the circumstances that facilitates investment in property, especially housing, which provides massive profits for property corporations. This is a market created by the deliberate withdrawal of publically provided housing. The ECB is the driver behind the speculative activity that is forcing up accommodation costs and creating homelessness. So we have the anomaly of one part of European law, the ECB, creating the conditions which undermines the intent of another part of European law, the Charter of Fundamental Rights.


So, if the Nordic countries succumb to neoliberalism where do we look for a model of development that integrates both social and economic ambitions and maintains a concern to build an equal Europe free from poverty and human rights violations? Hopefully the Nordic countries will have sufficient reserves of resilience to stop the flight towards the marketisation of everything. In the meantime there needs to be a renewed politicisation of citizens and communities across Europe while we still have a democracy – for it is only a matter of time until financial power will be converted into political power, if it has not happened already. As things stand, there is a remarkable disconnect between the causes of social inequality and the actions taken to remedy matters. Blaming migrants and voting for obviously dishonest politicians will make things worse, not better. There is a desperate need for civic education and a critical media. In the meantime we need to lever ourselves away from an ideology that distracts our focus from the unfettered greed that sustains neoliberalism.

Aiden Lloyd is chairperson of the Rights Platform in South Dublin, a community network using human rights-based approaches to tackle poverty and social exclusion. He is a former national community development & equality coordinator with ADM/Pobal, the agency that managed social inclusion, local development and equality programmes for government and the EU. He is also a former coordinator of the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland.


[1] Progressive taxes, increasing government expenditures or both, in order to fight recessionary pressures. In other words being very active in the economy. 

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