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Home arrow Marketing arrow Welfare Markets in Europe: The Democratic Challenge of European Integration


The opponents of the original proposal for an EU directive liberalizing all services (including welfare services) successfully created a polarization through discourse. They claimed the necessity to defend the possible existence of a ‘social Europe’ against the rampant ‘neoliberal Europe’. Such framing encompassed more specific elements of discourse such as wage and social dumping or attacks on ‘public services’. By invoking ‘social Europe’, they used a well-established master frame which had been forged in the public debate surrounding EU integration since the 1960s.

The effectiveness of this discourse can also be explained by the fact that a small number of activists had the necessary expertise to analyse the intricate policy issues related to services liberalization and translate them into political terms, thus articulating the coordinative discourse perceived as legitimate in EU politics with a broader, normative discourse.

From a strategic point of view, this discourse presented several advantages. First, the frame ‘social Europe’ had been an identity marker for all left-wing parties and movements (including the social democrats) since the early 1990s and was clearly linked to the Delorsian project for building a European social market economy. Thus, the motto ‘social Europe’ was broad enough (and without any need to further specify its policy content) to rally a large coalition. At the same time, advocating the defence of ‘social Europe’ prevented the coalition from being called anti-European, especially at the early stage when contestation was mostly initiated by movements of the radical left (such as ATTAC), and given the viral spread of the ‘Polish plumber’ metaphor launched by the far right. Interestingly, the ‘neoliberal’ Europe they denounced was not only represented by the European Commission as an institutional entity, but also by the loudly neoliberal (and Eurosceptic!) Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, which subsequently enabled the type of personification of the debate that is known in national politics.

All this contributed to a broad resonance of the campaign in the national media thus feeding the domestication (or internalization) of the conflict and mobilizing national actors (parties, local authorities, national parliaments, unions, etc.). This was amplified by the simultaneous campaign for the ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005 in France. Furthermore, the ‘social Europe’ frame could easily be shared across national borders as it had various cultural declinations in different countries. As the controversy developed, the consensual idea that the ‘European social model’ should be protected against the possible detrimental effects of liberalization and competition was taken over by prominent decision makers, including conservatives like J. Chirac or J.-C. Juncker.

The simultaneous debate surrounding a Framework Directive on SGI offers an illustration of how the lack of coherent framing contributes to the failure of a campaign aimed at balancing marketization policies with an agenda for re-regulation at the EU level. The lack of polarization between framing through ‘general interest’ and framing through ‘the market’ weakened considerably the pro-regulation coalition, as a dominant fringe of the social democrats did not want to fully immunize SGI from the logic of competition within the internal market. Due to a lack of consistency of the discourse of the social democrats, counter frames progressively took over throughout the various debates. Along with the idea that SGI were part of the market, the issue was increasingly framed through the idea of subsidiarity. Whether their objective was to promote or, on the contrary, slow down marketization, an increasing number of actors were persuaded that national regulation was more desirable as opposed to a deeper involvement of the EU. This was the case of German representatives in the EU institutions along with their Dutch and Scandinavian colleagues. Over time, even some French MEPs, the most fervent advocates of re-regulation by the EU, ended up invoking subsidiarity.

Such difficulties in finding an ideological and discursive agreement on the policy content of ‘social Europe’ had clear consequences in terms of coalition building, resonance and responsiveness. Uncertainty and distrust in the added value of more EU regulation did not only prevent the active involvement of transnational networks of the alterglo- balist movement; it was also an obstacle to internalization through the mobilization of national parties and unions. As a result, resonance of the debate surrounding a Framework Directive did not reach national public spheres. The dull coordinative discourse shaped in Brussels focused on the respective advantages of horizontal versus sectoral regulation. It never really translated into a broader, normative debate framed through the notions of general interest and solidarity and clashing with the values of competition and profit which underpin the market frame. This eventually meant that there was no political pressure on the Commission to act coming from the broader public sphere.

Finally, contestation of the GATS illustrates how politicization can take place in the broader setting of global politics. Interestingly, many civil society organizations or individual activists and politicians were involved in contentious networks concerning the GATS in the first place; in this context they gathered expertise on services liberalization which they were able to use later in the debate over the Services Directive. Insofar, the discursive linkage between the GATS and the Services Directive served to illustrate the idea that the EU is a ‘Trojan horse’ of the neoliberal globalization in Europe. The main frame which was opposed to the market—here referred to by the interests of multinational corporations—was that of democracy. The GATS was framed as a threat not only to the publicness of welfare services but more broadly to the regulatory capacity of states; according to the anti-GATS coalition, this was made possible by the undemocratic nature of international trade talks at the WTO. The international campaign backlashed in EU politics as the European Commission was attacked for its double talk on welfare services. Under pressure from the public and the mobilization of local authorities in many EU countries, it ensured that welfare services markets would not be open to international competition; but at the same time, it was still seeking market opening for European companies in developing countries. Protest crystallized on water distribution, an area where private companies’ predatory behaviour had led to serious prejudice for deprived people in a number of countries.

As in the case of the Services Directive, an efficient combination of expertise-based coordinative discourse with a strong appeal to values through the main frame of democracy brought about a fair level of resonance in the wider public sphere. The EU Commission, which was the main target of the European campaign due to its strong competences for negotiating trade agreements, engaged discursively with the critiques of the GATS; it also limited its commitments and requests at the WTO in the realm of welfare services, especially with regard to water. Yet, the two successive Commissioners in charge, Pascal Lamy and Peter Mandelson, articulated a consistent counter framing of the issue: from the point of view of the European Commission, services liberalization (including welfare) is a win-win game which is beneficial not only with regard to the EU’s competitiveness, but also to economic development in third countries. Moreover, the Commissioners, like WTO officials, considered that contestation was fed by ungrounded information and scaremonger- ing. The ongoing controversy surrounding the TTIP shows that the two conflicting framings of international trade—namely the market versus democracy—have remained vigorous and conducive of politicization.

To sum up, the study of the three interrelated contentious episodes pertaining to welfare services from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s offers insights which complement the classical institutionalist explanation for the supremacy of negative over positive integration. The institutional factors examined shed light on how coalitions contesting liberalization can successfully adapt to the multilevel nature of the EU and mobilize transnational, supranational and national networks simultaneously in order to ensure that contestation achieves a high level of resonance. Furthermore, along with the diversity of national institutional arrangements and cultures, an additional obstacle to positive integration was identified. The strong sectorizing of EU policy making impeded the formation of a wide coalition of actors advocating the re-regulation of welfare services on a horizontal, intersectoral basis. Last but not least, the study highlights the importance of efficient framing of particular policy issues. Efficient discourse relies to a strong degree on polarization, and a translation of technical issues in political terms that appeals to broad values. In debates on welfare services, ‘social Europe’ and democracy have proved efficient vectors of resonance and politicization, capable of countering the power of the discourse based on the market and competitiveness.

These findings show that, in spite of significant institutional constraints that favour market making, the EU is not bound to be neoliberal and technocratic. When coordinated transnationally and discursively consistent, coalitions of actors generating democratic contentious debates can shape decisions and policy making. Since the turn of the century, though, it appears clearly that the EU has been an arena where the dominant political forces have not promoted the regulation of capitalism and democracy at the European scale. By successfully framing the latest crisis of financial capitalism as a problem of public debt, these forces have only reinforced their ideological and discursive power position.

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