Joint Panel: European Union Studies Association (EUSA) Conference 2009

Los Angeles, 23-25 April 2009


Members of WP 7 – The Political Economy of the European Union, Waltraud Schelkle (London School of Economics and Political Science), David Mayes (University of Auckland) and Anna Michalski (Swedish Institute for European Policy Research) took part in a joint panel session at the EUSA 11th Biennial International Conference. The panel was chaired by Schelkle and Deborah Mabbett (University of London), and set out to explore the concept of ‘choice’ in OECD welfare reforms.

‘Choice’ in OECD welfare reforms
The goal of providing ‘more choice’ to patients, clients, and beneficiaries of social services has figured prominently in welfare reforms of OECD countries over the last two decades. It typically means a differentiated offer of services in return for stricter control and part-privatization of costs, ie often through privatisation and marketization. It is still an open question – and may indeed vary from country to country – what motivates the choice agenda at the member state level (retrenchment, monitoring of outsourced providers, redistribution by stealth etc). Traditionally, the solidaristic bargain underpinning European welfare states revolved around the twin objectives of equity and insurance, ie a redistribution of resources and a pooling of risks. The political calculus behind this dual understanding of solidarity may not have altered, but whereas much of the retrenchment literature to date has focused on the income distributive effects of dwindling resources to explain changes in mature welfare states, it may well be that more profound changes in welfare arrangements are being driven by the introduction of ‘consumer choice’ and an accompanied reinterpretation of risks and redrawing of the boundaries of risk communities.
This raises a number of questions for which Europe and North America provide numerous relevant cases. Is the contracting out to the private sector or increasing competition among welfare providers driven more by the motivation of expenditure retrenchment or quality enhancement? Is appealing to the median middle-class voter achieved by more privatisation or by giving choice within the public sector and thus safeguarding it against calls for full-scale privatisation? To what extent is the ‘consumer choice’ agenda an explicit challenge to solidaristic welfare citizenship, enshrined in a democratic consensus of the past? Can it provide the basis of a new consensus that comprises a broad political spectrum, from centrist social democrats to ‘compassionate’ conservatives?
For this latter question it is of interest to find out whether and how the EU takes up political pressures for choice at the national level and translates it into a legitimating agenda for European integration. Is choice meant to stir up entrenched redistributive systems in member states, create supposedly healthy competition at the margins and induce reforms so as to integrate markets for health care, old-age security, and employment? How does ‘choice’ reconstruct communities of risk that can affect sub-national, national and supranational pools? What role do the different sources of Social Europe play, emanating both from direct initiatives (social acquis in health and safety at the workplace, OMCs) and from other integration projects (the Single Market Programme and fiscal surveillance in the monetary union)?
Three papers were presented, followed by comments and discussion. Based on their study of choice and the reconstitution of communities of risk in European welfare reforms, Schelkle, Joan Costa-i-Font and Christa van Wijnbergen (LSE) argued that ongoing reforms of European welfare states that aim at increasing ‘choice’ for patients, clients, and beneficiaries provide a unique opportunity to explore how communities of economic risks are reconstituted, particularly where the introduction of choice is accompanied by increased private involvement in the provision and financing of welfare services. Deborah Mabbett argued that choice in service provision may be an incidental consequence of privatisation rather than a goal in itself. David Mayes presented a paper on social models in the enlarged EU, examining the social welfare regimes of the member states.
The papers were commented upon by Florence Bouvet (Sonoma State University) and followed by a lively discussion focusing on themes such as aspects of social policy in the new EU member states, particularly the implications of a flat tax regime, which offers on the one hand attractive labour costs for FDI and on the other efficient tax collection and incentives (both to pay and to work).Summing up the insights provided by the panel ‘the EU as an international actor’, we can conclude that, in the course of the last decade, the EU has become an intersubjectively acknowledged international actor. It is distinguished by multilateral-deliberative procedures of foreign policy coordination and ambiguous aspirations to become an influential civilian normative power. Moreover, the EU’s ambitions are mirrored in EU-wide public perceptions which see the EU as an actor who ought to act upon shared international problems.

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