Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Europe’s sticky iron curtain

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The European Commission’s annual report on the social situation in the EU has just been published, revealing not only striking differences between EU member states but also divergent trends between them in the period since the EU was expanded to cover the new member states in central and eastern Europe. For the majority of them (i.e. all of them except Romania and Bulgaria), 2009 saw the fifth anniversary of their accession – time enough, you would have thought, for views to be less, not more, divergent.

The report is supported by a Eurobarometer attitude survey on the social climate, based on the views of around 1,000 adults in each of the 27 EU member states, plus in the three candidate countries of Croatia, (Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia and Turkey, conducted in May/June 2009 and intended to be the first in a series of such surveys. It is striking that people in EU member states in northern and western Europe – regardless of the social measure used, be it within their personal situation, the general situation or in the area of social protection and inclusion – tend to report the highest levels of satisfaction with their current situation and prospects, while people in states to the central and eastern half of the continent (i.e. the new member states) reported the most dissatisfaction.

The reasons why the transition in former communist countries – even those untouched by war – has been so difficult are many, and the tough economic recession, with fragile economies in central and eastern Europe remaining particularly vulnerable, has clearly not helped. Social change, including large-scale population movements, has presented particular challenges. Nevertheless, it is equally true that, twenty years on from the start of the transition, with a whole generation of people not knowing what life was like in the former times, people living in those countries remain much less satisfied with their situation and prospects than is the rule across the rest of the continent. Life remains tough and the potential for disillusion is clear.

In this context, the words of Vladimír Špidla, the outgoing EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities are important:

Today’s report shows once again the importance of our efforts to promote jobs and growth in Europe so as to guarantee people’s social well-being in the future. We must continue these efforts as part of our future 2020 strategy to make the EU a smarter and greener social market economy.

Trade unionists, or European socialists more generally, are unlikely to find much to disagree with there.

What is required, however, is a greater sense of the need to do something more positive on behalf of people in countries in ‘the other half’. In this direction, it is interesting that the new Commissioner, taking the place of Vladimír Špidla, is to be László Andor, a Hungarian whose appointment, therefore, is likely to continue the perspective on the needs in this direction of what were formerly known as transition countries (and which perhaps might still need to be thought of in such a way); Špidla is Czech and, thus, also with a perspective informed by transition. Andor is an economist without much of an evident political background, although his past does appear to have some colour in it, and his appearance in the European Parliament hearings of the new Commissioners have been differently reported (see here and here). At the very least, however, he looks to be a safe pair of hands – and he does appear to be on board with issues on the EU’s social agenda. His tenure at the Commission needs to see greater, and specifically practical, attention paid to the social problems of countries from central and eastern Europe.


Written by Calvin

04/02/2010 at 1:26 pm

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