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date: 16 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Social policy has a particular character and set of associated politics in the European Union (EU) context. There is a double contestation involved: the extent of the EU’s agency in the field and the type of social policy model pursued. The former is contested because social policy is typically and traditionally a matter of national competence and the latter because the social policy model is crucial to economic and market development. Hence, social policy has both functional and political significance, and EU engagement risks member states’ capacity to control the social fate of their citizens and the associated resources, authority, and power that come with this capacity.

The political contestations are at their core territorially and/or social class based; the former crystalizes how wide and extensive the EU authority should be in social policy and the latter a left/right continuum in regard to how redistributive and socially interventionist EU social policy should be. Both are the subject of a complicated politics at EU level. First, there is a diverse set of agents involved, not just member states and the “political” EU institutions (Parliament and Council) but the Commission is also an important “interested” actor. This renders institutional politics and jockeying for power typical features of social policymaking in the EU. Second, one has to break down the monolith of the EU institutions and recognize that within and among them are actors or units that favor a more left or right position on social policy. Third, actors’ positions do not necessarily align on the two types of contestation (apart perhaps from the social nongovernmental organizations and to a lesser extent employers and business interests). Some actors who favor an extensive role for social policy in general are skeptical about the role of the EU in this regard (e.g., trade unions, some social democratic parties) while others (some sectors of the Commission) wish for a more expansive EU remit in social policy but also support a version of social policy pinned tightly to market and economic functions.

In this kind of context, the strongest and most consistent political thrust is toward a type of EU social policy that is most clearly oriented to enabling the Union’s economic and market-related objectives. Given this and the institutional set-up, the default position in EU social policy is for a market-making social policy orientation on the one hand and a circumscribed role for the EU in social policy on the other.

Keywords: EU social policy, European social model, employment policy, poverty and social inclusion, European Union politics

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