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date: 19 July 2024

International Social Work and Social Welfare: Europefree

International Social Work and Social Welfare: Europefree

  • David N. JonesDavid N. JonesInternational Federation of Social Workers


Europe includes not only some of the most economically and socially developed countries in the world but also some of the poorest. Social work as a profession has been well established for over 100 years within a variety of social welfare models; the countries in Central and Eastern Europe have re-established social work since the 1990s. The financial crisis of 2007/2008 and its aftermath, followed by the challenges of migration from war zones and Africa, have had a significant impact on the politics and social policy of the region and the resources available for social services and social work in most countries. These events are provoking a re-evaluation of the European Social Model. Some argue that they have also fueled the rise in electoral support for far right, nationalist, anti-immigration, and populist parties, seen also in other continents. The decision of the United Kingdom to break away from the EU, following a referendum in 2016, and the increase in support for anti-EU parties in other countries are having a profound social and political impact across the region.


  • International and Global Issues
  • Macro Practice
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Social Work Profession

Updated in this version

Updated to include recent developments and research.

Europe stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains and from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, from Portugal to Russia and from Finland to Greece, also including island states such as Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland, Malta, and the United Kingdom. It comprises the 47 democratic countries who are members of the Council of Europe, with a total population of around 740 million (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA, 2018), all of whom have ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, including respect for its legal institutions (European Convention on Human Rights) (Council of Europe, 1950). Belarus and the Holy See (in Rome) are also within the region. Twenty-eight of those countries are also members of the European Union (EU), a political union with common institutions and legal frameworks that have supremacy over national Parliaments.

The most populated countries, according to the most recent UN estimates, are the Russian Federation (143.4 million—including the population east of the Ural Mountains, which is within the Council of Europe but considered geographically to be part of Asia), Germany (82.1 million), Turkey (78.7 million), France (64.7 million), United Kingdom (65.3 million), and Italy (60.7 million) (United Nations Dept of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA, 2018, pp. 9–11) .

The main language groups are Germanic (such as German, Danish, and English), Slavic (such as Russian, Polish, and Czech), and Romance or Latinate (such as French, Romanian, and Spanish), together with a number of other groups and several smaller languages (TITUS Didactica Languages of Europe). The official languages of the Council of Europe are English and French. The EU works in all the languages of the member states.

Christianity is the historic religion of the region; churches still have significant social and political influence. Migration into western Europe from around the world has been significant in the second half of the 20th century, creating multi-ethnic societies with significant minorities practicing all the major world religions. In common with other regions, Europe has seen increased conflict linked to religious belief and group grievances since 2010, with a number of attacks and bombings by people claiming religious motivation (Bragin, 2014; Goodwin & Gaines, 2009; Roberts, 2007, 2015; Roser, Ritchie, Hasell, & Appel, 2018; United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, 2018; Vijaya, Wilent, Cathcart, & Fiorellini, 2018). There has also been an increase in physical attacks on members of minority communities (e.g., Gayle, 2018) and publicly expressed anti-Semitism (Sacks, 2014).

Economic and Political Features

The history of Europe has seen the development of states with strong national identities and a European culture. Western Europe experienced the first industrial revolution since when there has been a continuous trend from agricultural to industrial and more recently to service economies. The growth of urban centers and industrialized communities contributed to the growth in trade unions and charitable activity in the 19th century and the emergence of “welfare states” in the early 20th century. The early development of social work is often traced to these developments (Bamford, 2015; Hering & Waalwijk, 2003; Midwinter, 2001; Thane, 1996).

The history of continuous conflict between nation states, culminating in the experience of two world wars (1914–1918 and 1939–1945), both of which started in Europe, led to major political developments after 1945. The Council of Europe was created in 1949 to promote democracy and to protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe; it now includes almost all European states. The Council of Europe is not a political union, but it negotiates treaties that must be ratified individually by each state. However, the European Convention on Human Rights (the first international legal instrument safeguarding human rights, signed on November 4, 1950) is enforced through the European Court of Human Rights, established in September 1959, whose findings are binding on member states.

The European Union (2018a, 2018b) consists of 28 countries (around 513 million people) and is a political union with common institutions set up by member states, to which they delegate some of their sovereignty (primarily in economic areas), so that decisions on “specific matters of joint interest” can be made democratically at European level. The European Council decides most matters by consensus, except if the Treaties provide otherwise. In some cases, it adopts decisions by unanimity or by qualified majority. The Council of the European Union is formed of ministers from each national government and provides the framework for intergovernmental negotiations and decisions.

The directly elected European Parliament includes 751 members (MEPs). MEPs sit in 8 Europe-wide political groups. In the adoption of legislative acts, a distinction is made between the ordinary legislative procedure (codecision), in which Parliament and the Council must jointly approve new laws, and the special legislative procedures, which apply in specific cases where Parliament has only a consultative role. Both can ask the Commission to bring forward legislative proposals (directives, regulations, etc.,).

The European Commission (the Executive) is appointed by member governments (one Commissioner each). The European Court of Justice has jurisdiction over member states and makes sure that EU law is interpreted and applied in the same way in all EU countries. Countries bordering the EU tend to seek membership, which has to be agreed on by all existing members; there is a lively political debate across Europe about the appropriateness of further EU expansion—especially about the candidature of Turkey—reflecting tensions in the concept of the European social and racial identity. The size and influence of the EU mean that its economic policies and market arrangements have significance beyond the borders of the union.

The enlargement of the EU from the original 6 to the current 28 member states put considerable strain on the institutions and processes of the union. A revised constitution was adopted by the Heads of State and Government in 2004 and was signed in Rome on October 29, 2004. Although accepted in referenda and Parliaments in most EU countries, referenda in France and the Netherlands rejected the constitution. This resulted in an Intergovernmental Conference that produced new proposals, which were ratified as the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2007. The Treaty entered into force on 1 December 2009. The Treaty also gave legal status to The Charter of Fundamental Rights, which recognizes a range of rights, not only personal, civil, political, and economic, but also social rights of EU citizens and residents, some of which have particular relevance for social work (European Union, 2010); the Agency for Fundamental Rights was established in 2007 to be a champion for rights within the EU member states and structures (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2018). There continue to be tensions between those who wish to develop a federal Europe with power moving to the European level, those who prefer a looser, economic union of independent states, and those who reject all supra-national European structures.

A common currency (the Euro) was launched on January 1, 1999 in virtual form, and new notes and coins were introduced on January 1, 2002. The euro (€) is the official currency of 17 out of 28 EU member countries, known collectively as the Eurozone. The banking and financial crisis of 2007/2008 precipitated the most fundamental challenge to the European Union—and the European vision—since its formation in the period after 1945. After a period of economic optimism and growth stimulated by the enlarged union, the crisis exposed the high debts of several southern European countries and seriously challenged the continued existence of the pan-European Euro currency. The crisis had a significant impact on social welfare programs and public expenditure, with drastic reductions in social programs, pensions, and financial benefits for poorer people in the worst affected countries, and significant pressures on social programs throughout the union. So-called austerity policies have continued in many countries and have provoked significant social dislocation (International Federation of Social Workers, 2013), contributing to the rise in support for populist parties across the continent (Barr, Taylor-Robinson, Scott-Samuel, McKee, & Stuckler, 2012; Garrett & Pertotti, 2017; Karagkounis, 2017; Truell, 2017), although evidence of economic revival is emerging (Eurostat, 2018c).

Social Conditions

Social and economic conditions vary significantly within and between European countries: the region includes countries with the highest per capita incomes in the world and 4 of the 7 major industrialized democracies (G7—France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom). There are also countries with very low per capita incomes such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Serbia (Lange, Wodon, & Carey, 2018; United Nations Statistics Division, 2017), although there is some evidence of gradual economic convergence between EU member states. The highly developed social security or protection systems in western European countries mitigate the impact of unemployment and ill-health and provide support to families, such as access to child care. The EU sees social welfare systems as essential components of modern, market economies.

Globalization and the collapse of the Soviet system created considerable economic hardship for residents of Russia and other eastern European countries, with low wages and high unemployment. A number of countries formerly in the Soviet bloc later joined the European Union, benefitting from the open borders within the EU area. There was considerable migration from poorer to richer countries, with social and political impacts across the region. There were concerns in western Europe that the EU membership of lower wage economies in central and eastern countries might depress wages and exert pressure to cut back valued social services. However, following the 2008 financial crisis, there is evidence of migrants returning to Eastern European countries where job prospects are better.

Expenditure on social protection (usually seen to include pensions, health services, financial support for those with little or no income, social housing, social services such as child care for working parents, and social work for those with serious family problems) ranges from around 30% of GDP in Sweden, Denmark, France, and Germany to below 15% in Romania, Estonia, and Latvia (Eurostat, 2017). Variations reflect not only differences in living standards, but also the diversity of national social protection systems and demographic, economic, social, and institutional structures.

Almost one quarter of the EU-28 population were living in households that had difficulties to make ends meet in 2016, compared with just over a fifth where it was easy to make ends meet. . . During the period from 2008 to 2016, there was initially a relatively sharp increase in the number of people who were at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion, due largely to the impact of the global financial and economic crisis. However, since 2012, there have been modest reductions in both the absolute number and the proportion of the EU-28 population facing such risks.

(Eurostat, 2018a, 2018b)

At risk is defined as being at-risk-of poverty; facing severe material deprivation; and/or living in a household with very low work intensity. There is a wide variation between member states, ranging from 14% in the Czech Republic, to around 25% in Ireland and Poland, and 40% in Romania and Bulgaria (Eurostat, 2018a). The 2018 unemployment rates had fallen in all countries compared with 2017, ranging from over 18.9% in Greece and 14.8% in Spain to under 4% in Netherlands, Germany, and Poland (Eurostat, 2018c).

Social Policy and Welfare Services

The diversity of political systems and economic development in the European region is reflected in the varying national models of social welfare (Montero, van Duijn, Zonneveld, Minkman, & Nies, 2016; Zavirsek & Lawrence, 2012). These different systems are now responding to the conflicting pressures of globalization, especially the movement of industrial activity to lower wage economies outside Europe, and the tendency toward harmonization of arrangements within the EU. The rise of ‘populist parties’, usually emphasizing concerns about immigration, is in large part a response to these social realities (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008; Betz, 2004; Müller, 2016).

The balance between social services provided by the state, voluntary organizations/non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private agencies varies between countries (Kallio, Meeuwisse, & Scaramuzzino, 2016). Scandinavian and some other northern countries still provide state-managed social services, although policies are changing; Germany and some others have long-standing systems of state-financed NGOs; the United Kingdom is now reliant on commissioning of social services by local government from the private and NGO sectors (Ferguson, 2007), while other countries remain dependent on minimalist state services with larger NGO and faith-based sectors. There is a general trend away from reliance on large residential institutions for young people and adults with disabilities and health problems, toward more community-based services. In all countries, family members remain a major source of support and care in adversity (for example, Dex, 2003).

Although the EU was formed as an economic union, with no explicit “competence” (powers) in respect of social policy, it has shown increasing interest in the organization of social services, in part because of the Europe-wide social consequences of economic convergence and the drive to reduce state monopolies and increase competition. The underpinning treaties also require the EU to improve public health, prevent human illness and diseases, and identify sources of danger to human health (European Union, 2018d). This has led to integrated health-related work at EU level, aiming to harmonize policy and develop consistent high quality services (European Council, 2011). A Directive (law) “on the application of patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare” was approved in 2011 providing legal certainty about cross-border health provision and related matters (European Union, 2011). The Directive reiterates the overarching values for health provision of “universality, access to good quality care, equity, and solidarity” (European Commission, 2018).

There is a strong EU rhetoric about the “European social model” (e.g., Špidla, 2006) but disagreement about what this means in practice (e.g., Barbier, Rogowski, & Colomb, 2015; International Council on Social Welfare, 2005). In 2015, the Commission found that “the most resilient countries have labour market and welfare institutions that promote social fairness and contribute to recovery and growth” (European Commission, 2015). An active social policy is also seen as a way of making the EU relevant to citizens and voters. The Vice-President of the European Council reflected this commitment in 2018:

Europe's social model is particularly highly valued. Despite different histories and traditions, we all share a belief that a more social Europe is necessary. . . . Equality of opportunities and more equitable outcomes, we realise, lead not just to social improvements but also to economically and politically strengthened societies. Making our economies and social systems converge is therefore not just a priority, but also a necessity.

(Dombrovskis 2018).

A concern that social cohesion was being weakened as a result of the financial crisis resulted in a process leading up to the proclamation of The European Pillar of Social Rights at a Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in 2017 (European Union et al., 2017b). The Pillar includes 20 principles relating to social policy and employment in general, most of which relate to aspects of social work (European Union, 2017a, 2018c).

While social services are seen as a national responsibility, anti-monopolistic initiatives in general have been used to challenge the organization of health and social services in some countries, and there is developing case law in the European Court of Justice. The passage of the Directive (law) on Services in the Internal Market (European Union, 2006) generated a debate about the character and quality of social services (known as Social Services of General Interest, SSGIs), which resulted in exclusion of SSGIs from the Directive but a commitment to develop policy on health and social services. The Commission published consultations on health (European Commission, 2006a) and social services (European Commission, 2006b). The main umbrella group of social NGOs called for clarification of the special status of social services (Social Platform, 2006) and specified nine principles to underpin quality in social and health services (Social Platform, 2008). The European Parliament passed a motion criticizing the Commission’s failure to clarify the position of SSGIs (European Parliament, 2007). However it has proved difficult to make progress, given fundamental differences between national health systems and social policies and key stakeholders, particularly with reference to policies in respect of privatization or out-sourcing of services by local governments to private and other non-governmental providers (Barbier, 2015; Social Platform, 2010). The Commission recognised the need for clarification in a guidance note on the application of EU rules to SSGIs (European Commission, 2013).

The Role of Social Work

The varying political and social histories of European states have resulted in a diversity of social welfare systems and differences in how social workers are trained, employed, organized, regulated, and deployed (Hauss & Schulte, 2009). Social work practice is highly dependent on language and interpretation of culture; thus the development of the profession has taken on differing national characteristics (Jones & Lima, 2018). However, from the earliest development of formal social work at the end of the 19th century, there have been lively international and pan-European contacts that have contributed to the development of a European (An, Chambon, & Köngeter, 2016; Hering & Waalwijk, 2003; Jones & Lima, 2018; Lorenz, 2001, 2004) and global (Hall, 2006; Lyons, Hokenstad, Pawar, Huegler, & Hall, 2012) social work identity. This was evident in the 1928 global conference in Paris, resulting in the formation of the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) (International Council on Social Welfare, 2018; Zelenev, 2019) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) (Healy, 2008), and the process resulting in the eventual formation of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW; Hall, 2006). This European social work identity is recognized in a formal decision of the Council of Europe (2001) on the role of social workers, which remains the broadest, official statement about the role of social work in the European context.

European social workers are organized in the International Federation of Social Workers European Region, the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW), and the International Council on Social Welfare European Region. They are closely allied with the grouping of schools for social pedagogues—European Social Educator Training FESET; the International Association of Social Educators (pedagogues) AIEJI; in the umbrella group European Network for Social Action,

ENSACT, which aims to develop a united and more powerful campaigning presence at European level. The European Social Network (ESN) brings together people who plan, finance, research, manage, regulate, and deliver local public social services, including health, social welfare, employment, education, and housing. There are also European academic networks, such as the MA Comparative European Social Studies [MACESS].

Most European countries now provide social work qualifications in universities or equivalent higher education institutions; more than 300 institutions offering professional social work courses in Europe are listed on the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW, 2018) website, and many others are not members. The basic qualification is usually a three-year degree level award, but in some countries there is a minimum of four or five years. The Bologna Declaration (Campanini, 2015; European Ministers of Education, 1999) launched a voluntary scheme resulting in the establishment of The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in March 2010, including 47 European countries (European Higher Education Area, 2017) The objectives are to uphold the quality of European higher education, ensure greater consistency in awards and standards across the area and the elimination of barriers to the mobility of students and teachers. This has affected social work education differently in each country (Marcuello-Servós, 2014).

The employment of social workers across borders is subject to the Professional Qualifications Directive (European Union, 2005), building on earlier Directives (European Economic Community, 1989; European Economic Community, 1992). The Commission published a study evaluating the Professional Qualifications Directive against recent educational reforms in EU Member States (Danish Technological Institute, 2013), including significant references to the impact on social work (e.g., para 2.2.5). A Green Paper on “Modernising the Professional Qualifications Directive” (European Commission, 2011) led to a revised Directive (European Union, 2013), including an “electronic certificate to allow the cardholder to obtain the recognition of his or her qualifications (in another country) in a simplified and accelerated manner” (Redondo, 2013). Movement between countries has been growing (Hussein, 2011); a significant proportion of new entrants to the U.K. social work workforce during 2000–2010 came from overseas, including several European countries (Moriarty, Hussein, Manthorpe, & Stevens, 2012). There is also mobility of academics between universities, in part funded by the EU under schemes such as Erasmus. Social workers and their conduct are subject to statutory regulatory bodies in Italy (Sicora, 2015), Ireland, and the United Kingdom (Jones, 2018) and operate under statutory regulations in most countries.

There are both economic and social challenges to the European “Social Model.” Providing health and social care for a rapidly aging population with a declining productive workforce to pay for it is a social and economic challenge. There are also questions about whether the population is willing to continue to sustain welfare services as a “moral” duty, when some believe they will never need to use them. Improving the quality of social services is a continuing challenge, related both to economic limitations and social attitudes. However, surveys and polls suggest that the public remains committed to the importance of effective social protection. The major debate is not about whether social services are needed but rather how they can be provided most effectively and economically. It seems probable that there will be continued convergence of social welfare systems across Europe, notwithstanding the unpredictable political environment and resurgence of nationalism. There is no evidence of any reduction in the demand for social workers.