Kennett and Lendvai-Bainton, Handbook of European Social Policy

Patricia Kennett and Noemi Lendvai-Bainton, Handbook of European Social Policy, Edward Elgar, 2017, xviii + 458 pp, hbk, 1 78347 645 9, £160

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a ‘handbook’ was

Originally: a book small enough to be easily portable … Later also more generally: any book (usually but not necessarily concise) giving information such as facts on a particular subject, guidance in some art or occupation, instructions for operating a machine, or information for tourists

This book certainly isn’t small, but it does ‘give information such as facts on a particular subject’ and ‘guidance in some art or occupation’. But don’t lots of books that are not called handbooks do that? What publishers now seem to mean by ‘handbook’ is ‘this book is a comprehensive treatment of the subject so it’s the only book that you and your students will need’. Does this book fit such a description?

The first section, on ‘perspectives on European welfare states’, contains chapters on social policy ideas and language, cultural political economy, gender inequalities, and social investment. A particularly interesting chapter points out how a country’s economy and welfare state regime will often share characteristics because they have deep roots in the same history. Also, although recent austerity measures have reduced all European welfare states’ generosity, and have brought conservative and social democratic welfare state regimes closer to each other, both of them are still quite different from more liberal regimes.

The second section of the book is on international and regional institutions and social policy, and is mainly about European Union institutions. Here a chapter on European citizenship and social rights suggests that a ‘European minimum income scheme’ would strengthen European identity and solidarity and would more fully integrate Europe’s labour market. ‘Minimum income scheme’ is left undefined, but probably means a means-tested benefit, which would be very complicated to administer in the context of Europe’s wide variety of different tax and benefits regimes. A European Citizen’s Basic Income – an unconditional income for every individual – would be far more feasible to implement, and because everybody would receive it, it would have more of a positive effect on European identity and solidarity.

The third section compares welfare states and societies across Europe. Here we have chapters on Central and Eastern Europe, southern Europe, the Nordic countries, and the UK and Ireland. The chapter on Ireland and the UK suggests that these two welfare states are now becoming the model for Europe as a whole: a conclusion that needs to be compared with the conclusion that we noted in the first section.

The fourth section complements the third by treating the subject thematically: so, we have chapters on labour market policies, education policy, care work, and pensions. An outlier is a chapter on the territorial dimension of social policies. Missing are healthcare and social security benefits. This matters. Because healthcare is not given the attention that it deserves, the UK’s National Health Service is ignored, so its welfare state looks more liberal than it is; and because pensions get a chapter of their own, and unemployment benefit is dealt with in the context of a chapter on the labour market, social security benefits are not treated together, and both means-tested benefits and such unconditional benefits as the UK’s Child Benefit are not given the treatment that they deserve.

The final section of the book studies emerging challenges: poverty and social exclusion; climate change; multiculturalism; and the social legitimacy of welfare states. An outlier here is a chapter on Hungary, which implicitly asks whether other countries might eventually see the same turn to authoritarian neoliberalism and a welfare state that looks rather like the Poor Law. The final chapter asks some important questions about Europe’s – by which it means the EU’s – social project.

This book is in many ways a genuine ‘handbook’. Given the price, it is doubtful whether many people will buy it: but it will be a useful reference book for researchers and students who can borrow it from their institutions’ libraries.