Regional integration and social cohesion: the European experience
The EU has traditionally been considered a model of regional integration for other regions of the world but can be draw lessons from the way it has dealt with social cohesion issues? This is the question explored in this Policy paper by Eulalia Rubio, which served as note of discussion at a high-level conference Latin American conference on Social Cohesion, organised by the Chilean Senate and the Eurosocial Programme.
Four major conclusions stand out from the Policy paper.
- First, the history of the European project reveals that regional integration can hardly be confined to the economic domain. A decision to integrate national economies, even at a moderate degree, has spill over effects on other non-economic policy areas. A minimum degree of policy harmonisation and convergence is thus necessary to ensure that the process benefits all countries and the majority of citizens involved.
- Second, apart from the economic rationale, what explains the important EU involvement in the social field over the years is the strong attachment of European citizens to their social protection systems and to a regulated model of market capitalism. Whether these conditions are met in other regional integration experiences is an open question.
- Third, supra-national interventions in the social field are to be respectful and/or compatible with the existence of different social policy preferences and national social protection systems. This makes particularly recommendable the use of ‘soft’ forms of governance and differentiation.
- Finally, once the project of regional integration reaches a certain maturity, and thus spill-overs to policy sensitive areas (such as fiscal policies or social protection systems), it is essential to involve citizens into it. The EU history reveals how important is convincing public opinions about the benefits of EU membership and giving them a say in the process of European integration has become crucial to secure the future of the EU project. The European process evolved for a long time as an elite-driven project in the context of indifferent European public opinions (or, as it is usually argued in EU studies, in a context of ‘permissive consensus’). Today, however, convincing public opinions about the benefits of EU membership and giving them a say in the process of European integration has become crucial to secure its future.