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“The State of the Union”: Europe discusses solidarity in Florence

Is this still the time of a "welfare State”? Do social security and welfare systems meet the challenge of Europe’s aging population? What national policies are put in place for young people? What is the role of the EU? From May 10 to 11 Fiesole and Florence will host the eighth "State of the Union Conference.” Participants include, among others, Mattarella, Juncker Draghi, Tajani, Mogherini and hundreds of stakeholders from member countries. We drew an overview of the situation with Ellen Immergut, who will deliver the prolusion of the meeting

Solidarity is the lens through which European current affairs will be viewed for two days – May 10-11- in Fiesole and Florence, on the occasion of the eighth “State of the Union Conference”, the annual meeting promoted by the European University Institute (EUI) for a reflection on Europe. The event has grown in importance and visibility over time. It can be best described as a European “Davos summit”, which brings together political leaders, heads of the EU institutions, politicians, civil society representatives, academics and journalists to reflect on Europe, and, this year, also on solidarity, a word enshrined in EU founding treaties as its “spirit”, “duty”, and “value”. For this year’s Conference the Scientific Committee decided to focus on the economy and monetary policies, social investments, defence, security, climate change and energy. Eight round tables are planned in Fiesole the first day, while in Florence, panel speakers include, inter alia, the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, the President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank. Italian President Sergio Mattarella will deliver the opening address on May 10; Premier Paolo Gentiloni will deliver the closing speech on Friday May 11. The Historical Archives of the European Union will host an Open Day on Saturday 12 May. This year’s prolusion will be delivered by Ellen Immergut, Professor of Political Science at the European University Institute, coordinator of a research programme that involves fifteen three-year international study projects on social welfare, “The futures of the Welfare State.” SIR interviewed her on the occasion of the Conference.

Does solidarity play an active role in Europe’s welfare policies?

Welfare systems have been very successful as institutions and in ensuring social solidarity, namely, support for the elderly, the sick, the unemployed and people from other countries. In the research we analyzed the public opinion’s views of the ways in which governments deal with these groups as indicators of social solidarity. We found that social solidarity in Europe is at a very high level. But today we face two serious threats: the first is the growth of inequality. Today individuals face a large spectrum of risks, and there is a growing divide between the groups of people who face these risks, as compared to a situation where people are on the same boat and help each other. This happens at national level and between different Countries. We also found that beneath the surface of widespread solidarity in Europe, people are unhappy and they are concerned about welfare equality. Thus there is a problem of justice and legitimacy, marked by a blurred understanding of who receives what. Although people say they are willing to undergo cuts in this area, they question the fairness of the procedures and denounce unfair treatment. For example, in the case of access to social benefits for migrants and refugees, we registered differences regarding the willingness to help them and we found that the way in which media outlets and political parties present this issue has a very strong impact on how people see them, thus, on solidarity. As regards unemployment, people are concerned about equality and meritocracy, but if political parties describe unemployment as a consequence of external mishaps (a narrative that usually belongs to left-wing parties) or if between the lines they imply that the unemployed have not done enough to find a job (often linked to conservative thought), people are less willing to support unemployment benefits when there arises the need to make budget cuts. So there is a problem that involves the legitimization of social policies. These two dimensions together are among the causes of the growth of populism.

How can this problem be solved?

It is necessary to explain the underlying foundation of social benefits: for example, at EU level there is the pillar for social rights, which is a good first step, but how will it be implemented? How will it improve the life of people in European countries? How will these rights be guaranteed? There are many proposals to include mechanisms that re-ensure a minimum standard of guaranteed rights, there are many programs, but the problem for Europe is how to explain them clearly so that citizens may understand them and realize that the rules apply to all in a fair way. An example is that of austerity policies, that are adopted only on certain circumstances.

Moreover, national austerity policies, adopted in response to the various crises, have greatly damaged the vehicle of social solidarity in Europe. This is true for Greece as for Central and Eastern European countries as well as for Great Britain. For example, people were imposed cuts, but now there is funding for migration policies, while the population at large failed to see recognized their sacrifices on the one hand and have not been told where the financial support comes from. Populist parties feed on these situations. It should be noted that populist drives are growing today, after having overcome the economic and financial crisis. It’s a moral reaction, not an economic one, because people feel they are being treated unfairly. The logic of social solidarity must be clear and evident to all citizens. They need to know where their money goes, what benefits they receive, and how sharing works.

It is true that the aging population is likely to bankrupt social security systems?

Demographic transformations make social investments especially important. The future of our welfare systems will depend on the way in which policies will affect the young, children, migrants… Europe needs these people and we need to focus on policies that help them. Also because social support services create employment.  In fact, assistance services to children and senior citizens release the burden on family members who thus have the possibility to work and generate income. Indeed, this requires specialized training, since taking care of children and of the elderly is a demanding job. It is therefore necessary to invest on immigrants so they may possess the skills and the tools to provide these services. I have not noticed populist parties supporting any of these social investment policies, in fact they oppose them.

What are Europe’s “model Countries”?

The best social security systems are in Nordic countries. In my presentation I will show the results of a research that shows that they are expensive, public spending levels are high, but so are investments. We need to focus more on the link between investment and consumption, as is being done in many parts of Europe. Does public spending ensure support to sustainable welfare systems?

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