What Future for the European Social Model? Revisiting early intellectual concepts of social integration

Rebecca Zahn, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Strathclyde


In a forthcoming article in a Special Issue on ‘Future-Mapping the Directions of EU Law’ (Journal of International and Comparative Law December 2020), I consider the future of the European Social Model by revisiting the classic account of post-World War Two European social integration. In particular, I am interested in earlier intellectual concepts of social integration which have largely disappeared from legal scholars’ consciousness. What can scholars learn from the past when thinking about the future of the European Social Model?

The classic account of European social integration starts with the near-exclusion of European social policy from the European Economic Community Treaty (1957). The final version of the Treaty reflected a consensus which relied on market forces for growth and wealth creation while social policy largely remained the preserve of the Member States. Although the EU’s social policy competence has considerably widened since 1957 – under the umbrella of a European Social Model – there remains an asymmetry between European social and market integration. Tensions have become evident as economic (and monetary) integration has progressed, social diversity across the Member States has increased, and national welfare states have begun to be dismantled, leading to questions about the future role, shape and form of social Europe.

Earlier attempts at European integration foresaw a greater role for social integration, starting with Aristide Briand’s Memorandum on the Organisation of a System of Federal European Union – the first (French) government-backed proposal for a ‘European Union’ – presented to the Assembly of the League of Nations in 1929 and published in 1930. The Memorandum was contradictory in legal terms in that it did not foresee any transfer of sovereignty from the national to the supranational level but at the same time it aimed at the establishment of a common market which would lead to a permanent union of solidarity amongst European peoples. Solidarity was understood in terms of creating a moral community whereby Europeans recognise the innate inter-connectedness of their situation and are able to trust that one state will act in the interests of all states, to be able to speak with one voice in times of crisis, and to reap the benefits of co-operation. Briand recognised that this moral community may come about organically, but realistically, it would need to be actively created.

Other governments’ responses to the Memorandum were muted and, together with the deteriorating economic and political situation in Europe, this meant that the Memorandum was not further discussed by the League of Nations as a whole, but was assigned to a new committee within the League’s framework – the Commission of Inquiry for European Union. The Commission received a Memorandum from the International Labour Organisation on labour questions relevant to the proposed Federal European Union in January 1931. The ILO’s Memorandum was written by its director, Albert Thomas, who advocated for a certain amount of regional social harmonisation (within the ILO’s framework) if European unity was to be successful. The key driving force behind his proposals was a conviction that future prosperity and peace on the continent required European states to give up parts of their sovereignty. He was convinced that the constant respect for national sovereignties would obliterate any attempts at creating effective international organisations. The Memorandum therefore proposed, amongst other things, a comprehensive, cross-border plan of public works which would tackle the main issue of the day – large-scale unemployment – while also encouraging European integration and European society building. The resulting transnational infrastructures would fulfil the same aims identified by Briand, namely mutual dependence which would give rise to solidarity and, ultimately, a European spirit among European citizens.

Briand and Thomas’ plans for a European Federal Union have largely disappeared from European consciousness yet their ideas were influential in post-war ambitions for European integration. Similarities in thinking are evident in the 1950 declaration leading to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (the EEC’s predecessor). For its architect, Robert Schuman, transnational economic co-operation had to be assured as European states are united in a common destiny. In order to maintain peace in Europe, European states therefore had to create a de facto solidarity among their peoples which could only be achieved through concrete actions, including the refusal of national selfishness and the fusion of different states’ interests in the long term.

Such considerations did not survive the political compromises necessary to agree the EEC Treaty. Instead, social integration was to occur in a functionalist manner in order to balance economic integration. Although social Europe has become a much more ambitious project since 1957, the underpinning asymmetry between economic and social integration remains untouched. At its heart, the European Social Model suffers from an equivocal purpose within the EU’s framework. The breakdown of national welfare state systems since the 2008 financial and economic crises, the rise of populism in a number of Member States, Brexit, and now the Covid-19 pandemic engender a sense of urgency into the debates on the future shape and form of the European Social Model.

It is therefore timely to consider what lessons can be learnt from the past for the future of European social integration. Three points stand out. First, Briand and Thomas recognised the importance of solidarity as an underlying principle of integration. Economic co-operation alone is not sufficient to resolve the underlying tensions that inevitably arise between European states and which would, if left unchecked, threaten social stability. In order to support European integration, European citizens need to feel part of a moral community. Second, a sense of solidarity or moral community will not come about organically but needs to be created through concrete actions. Finally, in order for a European union to be able to take such concrete actions which build solidarity, Member States need to reassess the distribution of competences in the social sphere between the national and EU level. It might be that the current pandemic creates the necessary momentum to achieve political consensus in this regard.