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The Dynamics of Norms -
Social Governance of the EU

An Article by Sarah Seeger

First published in the bimonthly review on European integration the Bridge.

23.09.2008 · the Bridge


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The 'European social model' has become a metaphor that is often used to describe the uniqueness of the European Union. However, when trying to explore the content of this concept, one seems to be dealing with a phantom. The European Union lacks crucial competences to shape social policies at national level. The member states are the dominant actors. Furthermore, there is no common understanding of what such a European model should look like when it comes to its application in practice, as each member state has developed its own specific social system.

Yet, this does not mean that social governance is completely absent at EU level. Rather, a common understanding of social values and norms has already been part of the founding treaties of the Community and has been developed over time. This normative consensus determines national social policy more than it is widely recognised. The Treaty of Lisbon, which entails the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and which is envisaged to come into force at the beginning of 2009, takes over the existing aquis of the EU's social policy and gives it a new normative quality. Yet, it leaves some loose ends as the gap between normative claims on the one hand and the lack of adequate institutional and procedural provisions on the other remain in place.

For a long time, EU member states have been reluctant to transfer social governance competences to Brussels. Over time, each member state has developed its own social governance system. Shaped by national traditions, values and norms, it is a central reference point for national identity. Any external interference therefore is perceived as a threat to the self-conception of the member states. However, due to the mismatch between a Brussels-regulated, barrier-free internal market which reinforces or even causes serious threats to the national social security systems and the lack of competences to cope with the arising challenges, alternative modes of governance have been established on EU level. Most clearly, the open method of co-ordination tries to reconcile the member states' aim of keeping their sovereignty with the need for a co-ordinated European approach. And even if the EU is not able to interfere too deeply into national security systems, it can adopt supporting and complementing measures and minimum requirements.

National governments still watch jealously over their sovereignty in social security affairs, even if the Treaty of Lisbon defines social policy as a shared competence between the Union and the member states. Only in a modest way, the position of the European Parliament and the Council regarding public services (the 'services of general economic interest') are strengthened. According to the ordinary legislative procedure, they shall establish principles and conditions 'to provide, to commission and to fund such services.' At the same time, the Treaty emphasises the important role of the national, regional and local level in this respect. Furthermore, qualified majority voting will be extended, but only in a single area, social security for migrant workers. And even here, member states have fought for an emergency break which they can use in case important aspects of their national social security systems are affected. Crucial competences, such as financing public services, remain at the national level. And even if the new Treaty leaves room for manoeuvre in case member states decide to move ahead and transfer certain issues of social policy from unanimity to qualified majority voting, no major integration steps should be expected. As reality has shown, member states so far had no incentive to make use of this instrument, even if it has been provided within the existing legal framework already.

However, to estimate the Lisbon Treaty's effect on social governance in the EU, merely looking at decision-making instruments can distort the impact it might unfold. Rather, the normative aspects of the new legal framework are likely to tip the scales. Most obviously, this is expressed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights that has been integrated into the new EU primary law and that is thus given a legally binding status (even if the full text of the Charter is not part of the Treaty as it was originally envisaged with the Constitutional Treaty). Furthermore, both the values on which the Union is founded and the objectives of the EU introduced to the Treaty give the social dimension a new symbolic quality. According to the Treaty on the European Union, the Union aims to promote 'full employment and social progress', 'social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child.' It shall 'combat social exclusion and discrimination.'

A new horizontal clause on social affairs in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union demands 'a high level of social employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health.' Even if these values and norms don't pave the way for new EU competences in social affairs, they are likely to remarkably shape the behaviour of those responsible for social governance. The European Court of Justice will have to take these normative objectives into account when examining European laws and thus might re-interpret the Union's internal market-focused policies.

If social governance is not only conceived as shaping a welfare system with instruments such as pension systems, unemployment insurances or health care systems, but more generally as a broad common understanding of values, norms and beliefs which coin the behaviour of different actors and therewith the governance of a policy, its existence at European level becomes obvious. It is enshrined in the Union's legal framework and will be strengthened by the Treaty of Lisbon. The new normative quality of the social values and aims is likely to affect social governance in the EU much more than the relatively weak procedural and institutional provisions. Due to the dynamics of norms, co-ordination between member states will be intensified in future and might even result in a higher level of integration.


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