The Europeanisation of Social Protection, by Jon Kvist and Juho Saari (eds.)

Policy Press, Bristol, 2007, xi + 308pp., paperback, 1847420192, £25, hardback, 1847420206, £65

This book consists of papers from a conference organized by the European Union’s Finnish Presidency in 2006 to examine social security and health care systems from a European perspective; for, whilst such systems are organized by nation states, they are increasingly influenced by a European context. The EU is responsible for social inclusion, competition policy, employment policies, economic policies, and the free movement of EU nations’ citizens and their ability to seek employment anywhere in the EU, and these responsibilities are having a considerable impact on health and social security policies in nation states.

The papers published here examine social protection and health policies in eleven nation states and ask to what extent a European social model has influenced them. What emerges from the papers is the considerable diversity of social security systems in member states, a growing understanding that ‘the institutional design of social protection systems and the incentives they create for organisations, households and individuals [are] more important factors in explaining differences in economic and employment performance than the absolute levels of social expenditure or replacement rates of certain benefits’ (p.5), and a widespread debate about relationships between the internal market, competition law and national social security systems.

It is no surprise that the chapter on the UK, appropriately titled ‘The United Kingdom: more an economic than a social European’, concludes that

the UK perspective is that social policy is best left to Member States. …. The government is undoubtedly anxious about, and embarrassed by, its poor record on poverty and inequality. But it is much prouder of its record with respect to relatively high economic growth and relatively low unemployment. (pp.57-8)

The conclusions of most of the other chapters are rather more ambiguous, but there is a clear desire on the part of the nation states with the largest economies to maintain national control over social security policy.

The editors conclude: ‘We find strong evidence at the EU level pointing towards the Europeanisation of social protection. In short, not only the Council but also the Commission have been increasingly active in social protection issues’ (p.19).

On the evidence presented this seems a little too optimistic in relation to the larger economies; but the situation is very different in relation to Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Spain. Here there is increasing willingness to see further EU involvement in social policy.

Eventually the debate could go either way: towards the entrenchment of national systems, or towards greater co-ordination and eventual convergence. Whichever way it goes it will be a slow and complex process. Maybe one way forward might be for the EU to establish a social protection policy agenda alongside the very different national systems. Such a two-tier solution would leave states able to develop their own policies in line with their own social needs and would provide a European social protection system coherent with the free movement of EU citizens between member states and with the increasing Europeanisation of economic policy.

A European Citizen’s Income would do nicely.