The European Union’s path to the future: from convergence to harmonisation?

IW – 06/2017

The intention of the European Commission’s recently presented White Paper on the future of Europe is to show citizens that the Commission is also thinking about how the European Union should move forward. It is not only the UK that has to reorganise itself after Brexit; the remaining 27 Member States also have to decide which path the European Union should follow in the future.  


As a follow-up to the White Paper, the Commission has published a reflection paper on the social dimension that goes a step further. In the reflection paper, the Commission focuses on the social dimension of Europe until 2025. Its aim is to contribute to the discussion on the future design of the European Union, particularly in the areas of health and social policy.  


Three scenarios are presented for how to move forward.  

Less Europe

In its first proposal, the European Commission presents the possibility of ‘less Europe’. This entails limiting common rules to the Single Market. This option is included in the reflection paper solely as a way of addressing fears that social standards are too high and have a negative impact on European competitiveness.  


In terms of social policy, this would mean limiting the social dimension to the free movement of people. Rules concerning the social security rights of mobile citizens, the posting of workers, entitlement to cross-border health care via the Directive on patients’ rights, and the mutual recognition of qualifications are all examples of where EU citizens could benefit from ‘less Europe’. On the other hand, this option would also mean that occupational safety and health legislation at European level would cease and be restricted to Member State level. The many accomplishments already achieved in the form of numerous directives to protect the health and safety of workers would also be abandoned. The option also mentions abolishing the exchange of best practices in the social sector. Statements on European health policy are not entirely clear. Explicit mention is only made of a reduction in the control of contagious diseases and the fight against antibiotic resistance. However, it can be assumed that the initiatives would also result in a decline in other areas of health.  


It is hardly surprising that the European Commission would reject this option. Although decisions on social and employment issues would be ‘closer’ to the citizens, the Commission believes that there is a risk of a ‘race to the bottom’.  

The coalition of the willing

As an alternative to ‘more Europe’, the Commission’s second option proposes better cooperation between those who are willing to do more in the social field. Based on the motto of ‘Those who want to do more in the social field do more’, this option discusses a deepening of the social dimension in the euro area. This is justified by the crisis years which showed that the euro area countries need to do more together in the social field in order to avoid abrupt adjustments to the living standards of citizens. According to the European Commission, the social models and welfare systems of the euro area countries do not necessarily have to be identical. However, they should function well so that they are more resilient in the next crisis.  


Looking at the current division of competences in social and health policy, it soon becomes clear that the (primary) legal framework would have to be adjusted. The instrument of ‘enhanced cooperation’ could also be used here.  

One example of moving towards more European action and ‘common standards’ is the introduction of a single European social security number which would make it easier for authorities in the countries ‘willing’ to participate to reimburse or provide benefits. Other specific examples mentioned by the European Commission include common pricing for medicines, joint planning of the health workforce, and harmonisation of unemployment benefits.  


The European Commission seems to prefer this option over the ‘less Europe’ option because it would mean that the ‘European project’ would continue to progress, at least among those who want it. However, there is also the inherent danger that different social standards in the EU could hinder the Single Market.  

More Europe for all – the EU-27 deepen the social dimension together

It is for this reason that the European Commission has proposed a further option. This third option for the future design of the European Union in the social field is clearly the Commission’s most preferred. It describes the way towards ‘more Europe’, but on the assumption that all 27 Member States pull together. It is similar to the second option but takes it further by talking about common social standards in more than just some selected areas. It talks about harmonising the rights of citizens throughout the entire Union. This would result in a further transfer of Member States’ competences to the EU. The EU Commission mentions several examples of what could be done such as establishing common rules on digital platform workers; introducing a single European social security number; having a common retirement age across Europe based on life expectancy; mandatory guidelines for improving public health care; and the electronic transfer of medical records and prescriptions.  

What next?

When answering the question of who should deal with future challenges in the field of social security in Europe, it is difficult to imagine that the EU can do this on its own. However, common action in the form of exchange could be the answer because the Member States can benefit from one another’s experiences. This requires working together through better cooperation. Member States should also see the benefit of this. However, role divisions must be clearly defined. Common action must be based on common ideas and so it will be difficult to reach consensus regarding a single social security number and virtually impossible to agree on a common retirement age. The issue of a common retirement age raises questions about the financial viability of the system, and the EU has clear limits on this in the Treaties. Therefore, common action must not call into question the fundamental division of competences in the European Treaties.  


The European Commission wants to press ahead with the debate in Brussels and in the individual Member States. Which path the European Union will eventually take is still open. However, it is important to note that only the Member States can jointly decide the future of the European Union and that the voluntary nature of a common approach should not be called into question.