Europeanisation - are we aware what is happening?

Morten Jarlbaek Pedersen

Morten Jarlbaek Pedersen is a PhD candidate at the University of Copenhagen

The European Union stands at a crossroads. Elections are coming up this year in Germany, France and the Netherlands – countries traditionally seen as parts of the core of European integration – with anti-integrationist parties soaring in the polls. Migration crisis. Euro crisis. The list continues. In other words, Europeans have to decide now what kind of union they want in the future.

Part of an explanation of current anti-integrationist sentiments in a number of EU countries might be that a rising number of people in these countries have the impression that the Union has changed their countries without them noticing it. When the range of change then suddenly becomes too much and too obvious, we get the reactions.

Is this a simplified explanation? Clearly it is! But have we seen a gradual and silent Europeanisation that has profoundly altered the EU’s member states’ policies even in areas that are often defined as areas of national competency? Yes, we have. And have many of those changes gone unnoticed until recent years? Yes, they have.

 

Denmark as an illustration of silent Europeanisation in practice

Denmark is an obvious case to illustrate this: Denmark has a universalist welfare state, the ideational foundation of which is universal rather than insurance based access to tax-funded social benefits. This means that access to welfare benefits in Denmark in principle rests on the combination of solidarity, territory and citizenship rather than requiring, say, membership of an insurance scheme in a certain period. This ideational foundation of the Danish social system is often described to be directly at odds with the EU principles of free movement and non-discrimination. Furthermore, Denmark has historically been known for a less-than-federalist, perhaps even ’British’, approach to European integration. In other words, we have plenty of reasons to suspect that the interaction between the Danish welfare state and the EU would attract a high degree of political and public interest.

But it has not. ‘Study history, study history, in history lies all the secrets of statecraft’, Winston Churchill once remarked, and analysing every single change of the central benefits of the universalist, Danish welfare system since 1972, when Denmark entered the European Community, leads to a rather clear conclusion: gears have turned. And they have turned a lot. Pensions for the elderly, pensions for the disabled, the peculiar Danish pre-pension scheme, minimal cash allowances and student allowances – all have been significantly altered as a result of Danish EU membership throughout the last 45 years or so.

Take the access to minimal cash allowances. Following the Danish constitution (sic!), this benefit is accessible to every person residing in Denmark. In a Europe of free movement, such an idea is hard to sustain. And thus, the Danish minimal cash allowance scheme has been adapted to better suit the new, European legal realities. The result has been a minimal cash allowance, access to which today is more restrictive than before.

However, most of the changes have been small and gradual. Changes of legal detail rather than full-blown realignments of policy systems. These changes of Danish social regulation induced by membership of the European Union follow both from implementation of EU rules – court rulings, directives and the like – and from the Danish system proactively accommodating anticipated development. Despite it being the small gears turning, the implications and the direction is clear, and perhaps especially the latter cases – when Danish decision-makers decide to accommodate EU principles without a specific occasion to do so – could be expected to attract some attention.

But this mechanism of change has hardly been noticeable. Historically, public debate of Europeanisation of welfare in Denmark is a rare undertaking. And even elite debates, such as debates among interest groups or in parliament, of Europeanisation of welfare in Denmark is a rare undertaking, too. In a setting, where we would expect Europeanisation to be loud and perhaps even conflictual, it has been silent – despite the changes almost uniformly pointing to a greater economic solidarity between Danish taxpayers and economically inactive EU-citizens residing in Denmark.

 

Why?

This is an interesting finding and it provokes discussion: why this lack of interest in practical Europeanisation? A first explanation to this might simply be that the gears have turned too slowly for anyone to notice the range of change. The changes were all small adjustments of legal texts – not full-blown re-arrangements of institutional logics. Or that is, it was so in one case: the changing the pension scheme before entering the EC – but this case was discussed openly as Europeanisation. Apparently, this change had the size to attract attention. The others did not.

A second explanation is more political. The dominant political parties in Denmark are highly pro-integrationist. None of them would have any interest in spurring debate or interest in Europeanisation, if this process was potentially conflictual. Or it could be the case that these dominant political parties simply did not see the gradual adaptions as potentially conflictual and thus handled them as administrative matters. Looking at the process that led to the different changes, the latter seems more likely than the outright interest-based explanation.

Most likely, however, is perhaps a combination of all the above explanations.


This blog draws on the author's recent article in Policy Studies, which can be found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01442872.2016.1192114

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