Has any polity in world history undergone such a rapid and far-reaching series of transmogrifications as the European Union?footnote1 Founded as an organization for joint economic planning among six adjacent countries, in the context of the state-managed capitalism of the post-war era,footnote2 it grew into a free-trade zone, increasingly devoted to neoliberal internationalism under the rubric of the ‘Internal Market’. As the number and heterogeneity of member states grew, ‘positive integration’ was replaced by ‘negative integration’, in effect market-building: the removal of national regulations impeding trade, in an ever-broader sense, within the union. After the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the eu became in addition a geostrategic project, closely intertwined with American strategy in relation to Russia. From a handful of countries jointly administering a small number of key economic sectors, the eu developed into a neoliberal empire of 28 states, obliged under union treaties to allow for freedom of movement for goods, services, capital and labour, and to refrain from ‘anti-competitive’ intervention in their economies.

Social policy has been a touchstone for these successive iterations of the ‘European project’. What follows will analyse the trajectory of European social policy over the longue durée, as it has mutated from a projected federal social-democratic welfare state to a programme for competitive adjustment to global markets.footnote3 But first, the terms ‘European’ and ‘social policy’ both require a word of explanation. The European system of government, as organized, or disorganized, in the European Union, is a strange animal. It consists, first, of the domestic politics of its member states, which have with time become deeply intertwined. Second, member states, still sovereign, pursue nationally defined interests through national foreign policies in intra-European international relations. Here, third, they have a choice between relying on a variety of supranational institutions, on intergovernmental agreements among selective coalitions of the willing, or on both at the same time. Fourth, since the start of European Monetary Union, involving only 19 of the eu’s 28 member states, another arena of European international relations has emerged, consisting of mainly informal intergovernmental institutions such as the Eurogroup, the gathering of Eurozone finance ministers, looked upon with suspicion by the supranational eu. Fifth, all of this is embedded in a matrix of nationally varying geopolitical locations and geostrategic interests, related in particular to the United States, on the one hand, and to Russia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East on the other. And sixth, at the centre of the European system there is an ongoing battle for hegemony between the two most important member states, France and Germany—a battle which both deny exists.

All these factors make ‘European’ policy arenas and processes difficult to demarcate, and responsibility for outcomes hard to attribute. The upshot is a confusing assortment of issues and interests, motives and structures, levels and sectors of policy-making, with actors operating in different incorporations and capacities—which, in the absence of a European public sphere, is worked out mostly behind closed doors. Social policy is a case in point. There are at least three different ways in which it may be—or may be imagined to be—‘European’. The first is as a common denominator of national social policies, represented in the notion of a ‘European social model’ that somehow encompasses the essence of the variegated national ‘social models’ in Europe. A second meaning refers to the social policies of the European Union, over and above national policies. Here, European social policy may complement, supersede, regulate, coordinate, perhaps protect, perhaps restructure the social policies of eu member states, adding an additional, supranational layer to the social-policy regimes of member states. And third, European social policy may, under some sort of federalist social democracy, absorb and replace—in other words, ‘integrate’—national social policies, on the way to a unified European welfare state, with identical social policies for Europe as a whole. Reference to the so-called ‘Social Dimension’ of the European Single Market often fails to keep the three meanings apart, which allows proponents to switch between them as they see fit.

Moreover, assessing the empirical validity of different representations of a ‘European social model’ requires expert knowledge in comparative politics and law, given the wide divergence in the institutions, the politics and the substance of social policy across eu member states—all the more so after the accession of Scandinavia, Greece and, in particular, the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe. In practice this means that in public debate, anybody can imagine ‘Europe’ to be whatever he or she likes. This holds also for the extent to which European social policy in the second sense, as a set of supranational directives, is actually implemented by the Union’s 28 member states, with their very different economic, political and legal systems. As a result, idealizing ‘Europe’ and European policy is much easier than assessing its realities, which has become a domain for insider specialists, most of whom tend to be ‘pro-European’.

A further consequence of the deep differences between eu member states is that the definition of ‘social policy’ itself needs to be drawn with a very broad brush. In the following, ‘social policy’ therefore refers to the entirety of authoritative political interventions designed to limit, if not eliminate, the vulnerability of wage earners and their families, or generally of less well-off citizens, in relation to the vagaries of markets in a dynamic private-capitalist economy. In addition, an important function of social policy is to secure legitimacy for the regime of wage labour and managerial rule over the labour process. This can happen in two ways: by partially exempting actual and potential wage earners from market pressures—here we may speak of social protection by de-commodification—or by enabling them to obey market signals more profitably, through public support for private adaptation to changing market conditions. The two approaches, one setting limits to the market, the other supporting compliance with it, may sometimes be difficult to distinguish, and indeed all social-policy regimes more or less include both kinds of measures, commodifying and de-commodifying, to different degrees and for different purposes. Bearing these points in mind, we will examine the mutations of European social policy through five distinct stages. As will be seen, its trajectory followed closely the general trend of capitalist political-economic development in this period, sometimes driven by it, sometimes reinforcing or modifying it, but never checking or reversing it.