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Includes new content on the 2008 financial crisis in Europe and its impact on the resources available for social services and social work. Statistical data updated.

Updated on 2 December 2013. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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date: 02 July 2020

International Social Work and Social Welfare: Europe

Abstract and Keywords

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 reestablished social work since the 1990s. The financial crisis of 2007/2008 and its aftermath had a significant impact on the resources available for social services and social work in most countries and has provoked a reevaluation of the European social model.

Keywords: European Union, Council of Europe, European social model, social work, social welfare, socioeconomic conditions, globalization, austerity

Europe stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains and 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 (Council of Europe, 2013), with a total population of around 800 million, 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-seven 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 are the Russian Federation (143 million—including the population east of the Ural Mountains, which is within the Council of Europe but considered geographically part of Asia), Germany (82.1 million), Turkey (73.7 million), France (63.1 million), the United Kingdom (62.4 million), and Italy (60.8 million) (United Nations Population Division, 2012).

The main language groups are Germanic (such as German, Danish, English), Slavic (such as Russian, Polish, Czech), and Romance or Latinate (such as French, Romanian, Spanish), together with a number of other groups and several smaller languages (TITUS Didactica: Languages of Europe (map),

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 multiethnic societies with significant minorities practicing all the major world religions.

Economic and Political Features

The history of Europe has seen the development of states with strong national identities and of European culture. Western Europe experienced the first industrial revolution, since which time 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, 2004; Hering & Waaldijk, 2003; Midwinter, 2001; Thane, 1996).

The history of continuous conflict between nation states culminating in the experience of two world wars (1914–1918, 1939–1945), both of which started in Europe, led to major political developments after 1945. The Council of Europe (2013) was created in 1949 to promote democracy and 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 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 EU ( consists of 28 countries (around 503 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 the 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. There is a directly elected European Parliament of 766 members. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sit in seven Europe-wide political groups with a small number of non-attached MEPs. In the adoption of legislative acts, a distinction is made between the ordinary legislative procedure (co-decision), in which Parliament and the Council must jointly approve new laws, and the “special legislative procedures,” which apply only 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 must be agreed by all exiting members. There is a lively political debate across Europe about the appropriateness of further EU expansion and 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 has put considerable strain on the institutions and processes of the union. A new 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, which produced new proposals that were ratified as the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2007. The Treaty entered into force on December 1, 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 (EU, 2010). There continue to be tensions between those who wish to develop a federal Europe, with power moving to the European level, and those who prefer a looser, economic union of independent states.

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 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 EU—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.

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 five of the eight major industrialized democracies (G8—France, Germany, Italy, Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom). There are also countries with very low gross domestic product such as Moldova (136th poorest), Ukraine (105th), and Serbia (86th) (International Monetary Fund, 2013), 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 assists new member countries to develop social welfare systems, which are seen as essential components of modern, market economies.

Globalization and the collapse of the Soviet system have created considerable economic hardship for residents of Russia and other eastern European countries, with low wages and high unemployment. 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, whereas migration from Spain and some other southern countries with high unemployment is growing.

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 the gross domestic product in Sweden, Denmark, France, and Germany to under 20% in Romania, Estonia, and Latvia (Eurostat, 2013a). Variations reflect not only differences in living standards, but also the diversity of national social protection systems and demographic, economic, social, and institutional structures. Approximately 24.2% of the total EU population was estimated as living in households “facing poverty or social exclusion” in 2011, 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 15.3% in the Czech Republic to over 25% in Greece, Spain and Poland and over 40% in Romania and Bulgaria (Eurostat, 2013b). The estimated unemployment rates in July 2013 ranged from over 26% in Greece and Spain to under 7% in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria (Eurostat, 2013c).

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. These different systems are now responding to the pressures of globalization and the tendency toward harmonization of arrangements within the EU. The balance between social services provided by the state, voluntary organizations/nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private agencies varies between countries. Scandinavian and some other northern countries still tend to provide state-managed social services; Germany and some others have long-standing systems of state-financed NGOs; the United Kingdom is developing commissioning of social services by local government from the private and NGO sectors whereas 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 Treaty also requires the EU to improve public health, prevent human illness and diseases, and identify sources of danger to human health. This requirement has led to integrated health-related work at the EU level, aiming to bring health-related policy areas together; a consultation to explore options for a directive (law) to ensure legal certainty about cross-border health provision and related matters (European Commission, 2006a) has not made progress. The European Council reiterated in 2011 the overarching values for health provision of “universality, access to good quality care, equity and solidarity” (European Council, 2011).

There is a strong EU rhetoric about the “European social model” (European Commission, 2004; Špidla, 2006) but disagreement about what this means (International Council on Social Welfare, 2005). In 2004, the Commission concluded that “those Member States that perform best on all crucial indicators are those where the principles of active welfare states are applied with the greatest consistency and commitment” (European Commission, 2004). An active social policy is also seen as a way of making the EU seem relevant to citizens and voters. The president of the European Council reflected this commitment in 2012 when he said,

I am very much aware that this (financial) crisis and some remedies put social cohesion at stake. It can also damage the European idea itself. That is why we have to tackle inequalities and poverty, that is why we need results of our policies in terms of growth and jobs. The European social model is not dead. An early involvement of all relevant stakeholders, in particular the social partners, is necessary for the adjustment measures to be successful. (Rompuy, 2012)

Although social services are seen as a national responsibility, antimonopolistic initiatives in general have been used to challenge the organization of health and social service in some countries, and there is developing case law in the European Court of Justice. In essence, the fundamental objective of the EU is to reduce national economic controls, open markets and increase competition as a means of reducing provider power and increasing living standards. The treaties imply that these principles would apply to social services, although many services have been, in effect, state monopolies or provided by community or voluntary sector groups (Arrowsmith, 2010). The passage of the Directive on Services in the Internal Market (European Parliament and European Council, 2006) generated a debate about the character and quality of social services, and whether they should be subjected to competition principles, which resulted in exclusion of social services from the Directive but a commitment to develop policy on health and social services. The Commission published communications on health (European Commission, 2006a) and social services (European Commission, 2006b) in 2006 and the main umbrella group of social NGOs has called for legislation to clarify the special status of social services (Social Platform, 2006).

The EU has published a guide to the application of EU rules to public services, and in particular social services (EU, 2013). The uncoordinated and inconsistent approach of the EU to ‘services of general interest’, which include social services, has been mapped by Social Platform, the umbrella group for European Social NGOs (Social Platform, 2010). It has proved difficult to make progress, given fundamental differences among national health systems, national governments, and key stakeholders, especially in the context of the financial crisis.

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. Social-work practice is highly dependent on language and interpretation of culture; thus, the development of the profession has taken on differing national characteristics. 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 (Lorenz, 2001, 2004) and international (Lyons, Manion, & Carlsen, 2006) social-work identity. This was reflected in the global conference held in Paris, France, in 1928, resulting in the formation of the International Council on Social Welfare, International Association of Schools of Social Work, and the eventual formation of the International Federation of Social Workers. This European social-work identity is recognized in a formal decision of the Council of Europe (2001), which provides the broadest, official statement about the role of social work in the European context.

Most European countries now provide social-work qualifications in universities or equivalent higher education institutions; around 300 institutions offering professional social-work courses in Europe are listed on the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW) 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 in 1999 launched a voluntary process resulting in the establishment of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in March 2010, including 47 European countries (EHEA, 2009). The objectives are to uphold the quality of European higher education, ensure greater consistency in awards and standards across the area, and eliminate barriers to the mobility of students and teachers. This has affected social-work education differently in each country (EurActiv, 2008; European Ministers of Education, 1999). The movement of social workers is subject to the Professional Qualifications Directive 2005, building on earlier directives (European Economic Community, 1992). A Green Paper on Modernizing the Professional Qualifications Directive was published in 2011 (European Commission, 2011). Movement between countries is now beginning to develop; a significant proportion of new entrants to the U.K. social-work workforce during 2000–2010 have come from overseas, including several European countries. There is also mobility of academics between universities, in part funded by the EU. Social workers and their conduct are formally regulated in Italy, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

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 pedagogs (European Social Educator Training) (, the International Association of Social Educators (pedagogues) (, in a new umbrella group European Network for Social Action (, which aims to develop a united and more powerful campaigning presence at the European level. Other European academic networks include the European Platform for World Wide Social Work ( and Master of Arts in Comparative European Social Studies ( It seems probable that there will be continued convergence of social welfare systems across Europe.

Economic and social realities are challenging the European “social model.” Governments are extremely worried about the aging demography and the challenge of providing health and social care for a rapidly aging population with a declining productive workforce to pay for it. 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 to 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.


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