The Politics of Poverty in the European Union

Florence Larocque and Alain Noël

Florence Larocque and Alain Noël discuss their article on the politics of poverty in the European Union, published in the latest issue of Policy & Politics.

“Arguments about poverty,” note Paul Copeland and Mary Daly in a recent article, “go to the heart of political disagreement in Europe,” because they express profound differences about social policy and models of capitalism. The European commitment to fight poverty and social exclusion has thus moved over the years, from the ambitious decision to make social inclusion an explicit goal governed by the new Open Method of Coordination (OMC) with the Lisbon strategy in 2000, to a more circumscribed vision giving priority to economic growth and job creation after 2005, and to an ambiguous but nevertheless explicit quantitative target agreed upon in the summer of 2010, “to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and social exclusion” by 2020. But changing orientations at the European level are not the only manifestation of political disagreement about poverty. Important differences are also expressed through the distinct ways member states have interpreted the common objectives.

The study we present in Policy & Politics focuses specifically on the OMC/inclusion to document and explain the way in which the EU-15 member states responded to the common poverty reduction objectives, between 2001 and 2006. Our results indicate significant variations in the orientations of member states, along the three dimensions of social inclusion identified by the EU, namely rights, labour market policies, and participation. These policy differences are meaningful and fashioned by recurrent features of national politics. First, with respect to the recognition of rights, social policy institutions appear determinant. Countries with social-democratic welfare states or with an institutionalized commitment to reduce poverty are more likely to present the issue as one of human rights. Differences in labour market policies, on the other hand, appear largely determined by partisan politics. All member states share the European focus on activation and “making work pay,” but governments of the right are distinctive in their propensity to pursue this objective by making social benefits less generous and less accessible. Finally, participation policies seem shaped by partisan factors for traditional actors (NGOs and social partners) and by the national poverty agenda for people experiencing poverty.

Our results inform the ongoing debate on the transformation of the European welfare state in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Few scholars now disagree that significant policy change occurred in the last fifteen years. Some, however, draw pessimistic conclusions and stress the fact that the new prevailing orientations failed to reduce poverty in the European Union, and may even have contributed to increase income polarization and dualization. Others remain more optimistic, and underline the partial and uneven acceptance and implementation of the new social investment ideas promoted by the EU. This debate about the fate of an unevenly shared vision cannot be settled easily. But it certainly would help to map more clearly how member states translated common EU orientations into national objectives and priorities, and what institutional and political factors prompted them to do so, which is what we intended to do in the article published this month.

Florence Larocque is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University and a Trudeau scholar. Her research focuses on the politics of public goods provision, especially social policies and public utilities, in Western Europe, Canada, and Latin America. Her work has been published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science and Politique et Sociétés.

Alain Noël is professor of political science at the Université de Montréal. He works on social policy in a comparative perspective, as well as on federalism and on Quebec and Canadian politics. He is the author, with Jean-Philippe Thérien, of Left and Right in Global Politics (Cambridge University Press) and, with Miriam Fahmy, of Miser sur l’égalité (Fides).

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