What are the key challenges for social Europe today?

The European Union is a work in progress. It is moving, changing, reinventing itself in the face of new challenges that can be both institutional (e.g. democratic gap) and circumstantial (e.g. poverty, financial crisis and international security challenges). Below are highlighted (in brief) some of the key challenges for social Europe today. This is not an in-depth analysis, but a presentation of why and where the European Union’s Member States must work together to address current and future social challenges which have already impacted on, and will continue to impact on, its economy and political stability.

In theory, the decision-making process at EU level is the following: proposals start with the Commission which has the exclusive right to propose legislation and has the right to withdraw a proposal at any time. Once agreed by the College of Commissioners, a proposal is transmitted to the Council where it will initially be referred to the relevant Working Group to prepare it for passage to Ministers via COREPER. Commission proposals are transmitted simultaneously to the Parliament where they are referred to the relevant Committee before being voted on by the full Parliament.

European Commission
Discussion and Amendments
Council (= Member States) European Parliament
Regulation Directive Decision

Final agreement on a legislative proposal may involve a conciliation process between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. The result will be one of three different types of European legislation:

  1. Regulation, the highest form of European legislation, directly applicable in all member states.
  2. Directive, binding on Member States as regards the results to be achieved, but leaves the choice of method up to them.
  3. Decision, a legislative instrument of the EU which is binding in its entirety on those to whom it is addressed.

The problem with this process concerns questions as to the political legitimacy of the European Commission (critics claim that this should not be left to unelected civil servants) when it initiates new legislation, and the lack of transparency as to how and why it proposes new legislation. Furthermore, the low level of participation in the European Parliament elections in some countries increases the democratic gap which it should have counterbalanced. This leads to an increasing questioning of the legitimacy of EU-initiated processes and legislation, and might contribute to fuelling anti-European rhetoric.

To know more, refer to:

Europe’s population is ageing as people live longer owing to improvements in living conditions and better health care. At the same time there is also general trend towards a low birth rate, leading to a gap in replacement of generations. This is leading to a change in the structure of European society which is having, and will continue to have, a strong impact on social protection and healthcare systems.

Demographic challenge and ageing are a fundamental challenge to European societies, in response to which governments have to reform the labour market and pension systems so as to address the shrinking of the workforce and consequent increased pressure on pension, healthcare, long-term care and social protection systems.

In response to these needs, the European Council (Stockholm European Council) has agreed to a strategy based on three priorities:

  1. Reducing public debt,
  2. Raising employment and productivity rates,
  3. Reforming pension, health care and long-term care.

For more information consult:

Migrants across Europe are among the most vulnerable groups in society and are often socially excluded. Providers of social and health care services are witnessing an increase in social exclusion and poverty experienced by migrants. Migrant workers and their families often live in precarious conditions and exist in a legal limbo. Migrants trying to enter the EU, including refugees, face difficulties in accessing its territory in order to apply for asylum. Irregular migration to Europe has seen a sharp increase in recent years and particularly in 2015.

As Frontex, the European Union agency handling border management, puts it: ‘’Detections of illegal border-crossing along the EU’s external borders sharply increased between 2012 and 2013, from approximately 72 500 to 107 000, which represents an annual increase of 48%.’’[1] More recently, Frontex noticed that ‘’In the first seven months of 2015, nearly 130 500 migrants have been detected at Greece’s external borders, a five-fold increase from the same period of last year.’’ Faced with this situation, the EU Member States must work together to better manage and integrate migrants. Well-managed migration could help address the ageing of European society, helping to reduce the shrinking working-age population. However, the reality is currently very different as inclusion policies are too often failing to integrate migrants and, moreover, the increasing number of demands for migration is used as a political tool by some to fuel populism in many parts of Europe.

The EU is working to find ways of sharing out responsibility for refugee protection between EU Member States, and to improve inclusion. For instance, in May 2015 the European Commission presented proposals for a common asylum and refugee policy, including a proposal for establishing a relocation mechanism to assist external borders Member States. In so doing the European Commission is helping to coordinate the work of Member States in facing a common challenge.

More recently, on 7th June 2016, the European Commission published a series of initiatives relating to tackling the migration influx including a ‘’New partnership framework’’ through which the EU will seek partnership with third country of origin and transit (Jordan, Mali, Niger, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Senegal and Nigeria) to stem the flow of irregular migrants. This new partnership framework is widely criticised as it seems to mirror the EU-Turkey agreement in ‘’outsourcing’’ the management of the migration increase to external boarders countries. The respect of human rights and international humanitarian law is mentioned as a priority for the European Commission but the reality of its implementation in the proposed partnership framework is must more questionable.

The Action Plan on the Integration of Third-Country Nationals is a ‘’framework for action’’ which proposes concrete initiatives to support Member States in the integration of the ‘’20 million non-EU nationals residing legally in the EU’’.The competence for integration policy lies primarily with the Member States, but the EU wants to play a role is facilitating Member States’ work on the integration of third country nationals. The Action Plan includes actions supporting pre-departure and pre-arrival measures, education, employment and vocational training, access to basic services, active participation and social inclusion. The last European Commission proposal on 7th June was the revision of the EU Blue Card Directive concerning the framework for the immigration of highly skilled workers. The proposal aims to improve the EU’s ability to attract and retain highly skilled workers, in order to enhance the competitiveness of its economy and cope with demographic challenges.

For more information, please see the European Commission fact sheets on:

  • A new partnership framework here (EN).
  • The action plan on the integration of third-country nationals here (EN).
  • Revision of the EU Blue Card Directive here (EN).

To know more about Eurodiaconia’s work on migration here and:

[1] Frontex annual risk analysis 2014, page 7

Eurostat June 2015 figures indicated that 23 million people were unemployed in the EU 28.

The general unemployment rate conceals an extremely wide and complex range of realities, for instance geographical variation: the lowest unemployment rates were recorded in Germany (4.7%) and Czech Republic (4.9%) while the highest were recorded in Greece (25,6%) and Spain (22,5%). But in all countries high rates of youth employment and long-term unemployment compound the difficulty of the situation.

The 2008 financial and economic crisis led to this rise in unemployment, which reinforced in many countries a policy approach to poverty and exclusion focusing on employment, despite evidence in several Member States that the impact of the crisis may be leading to an increase in in-work poverty and labour market segmentation. What this means is that the labour market seems to be increasingly divided into categories which allow no crossover capabilities; for example some jobs and profiles give access to well-paid employment under good working conditions whereas other profiles (mostly low-skilled) give access only to low-paid jobs with poor terms and conditions. The consequence is often that those who are in work are also at risk of poverty. This is not new but it challenges the notion that access to employment is a sufficient condition for escaping poverty and puts the focus on the importance of ensuring that employment is of good quality and that work pays sufficiently well to provide a decent living.

For more information, consult:

The social situation in the EU was certainly not perfect prior to 2008, but the economic crisis gave rise to an increasingly challenging social situation, as demonstrated by the rise in unemployment and the soon-to-be-missed poverty-reduction target of the Europe 2020 strategy, with poverty levels increasing rather than decreasing.

In this context of economic downturn and social need, the European Union and International organisations such as the International Monetary Fund have often encouraged ‘’austerity policies’’ of budget restriction. Given that social protection and services account for a large proportion of State spending, these budget cuts have directly impacted on traditional welfare safeguarding mechanisms. For instance in many countries reforms have been introduced to stop wage indexation, decrease pensions or reduce funding of public services. This is leading today to a deep questioning on the future of the ‘’welfare state’’ in the EU. Social Services providers are now sometimes asked to step in to fill a role formerly played by the state.

As once again some seem to be arguing that there is “no such thing as society”, several alternative ways forward have been suggested for reinventing or revaluing the place and role of the welfare state in Europe. These are based on a re-emphasis of the broad benefit of social investment and on the modernisation and restructuration of public spending in the interests of greater efficiency.

For more information on these, refer to part 6 of this toolkit: the hope and future of social Europe or see Eurodiaconia’s work on the impact of the financial crisis on its members and the Eurodiaconia declaration “Protecting Europe’s most precious resources at a time of crisis“.