Public Support for a Social Europe: A Basis for Political Action?

Text: Sharon Baute

The question of what kind of Europe citizens want and whether they support a more active EU role in social policy is a subject of intense debate in European welfare states. An analysis of public opinion about an EU initiative on minimum income protection reveals challenges and opportunities for the development of a Social Europe. The hopes that less developed welfare states put in EU policies and societal concerns in the most developed can constitute a common basis for political action.


The multidimensional nature of Social Europe

Over recent decades, the European Union has gradually taken a more active role in social policy. As a result, social policy is no longer an exclusively national matter and European welfare states are embedded within the multi-level governance of the EU. Simultaneously, calls to establish a “Social Europe” have become more prominent in political debate. If we are to make progress here, it is crucial to know and understand citizens’ attitudes; this is the focus of this contribution. However, before drawing conclusions about public support, it is important to be aware that Social Europe is multidimensional in nature: as used in academic and political debate, the concept embraces different policy principles and instruments. Drawing on survey data from Belgian voters, we found that Social Europe is not only a multidimensional concept at the policy level, but also in the minds of citizens (Baute, Meuleman, Abts, & Swyngedouw, 2018). In practice, different EU policy principles and available instruments, as well as new policy proposals, were translated into survey items. For instance, respondents had to indicate to what extent they agree or disagree with specific statements about the preferred decision-making level for social policy areas (EU versus national), EU social regulations in the area of health and safety at work, social rights for EU migrants, transfers between Member States, interpersonal solidarity and the establishment of a “European welfare state”.

­Of course it is likely that support for these differ­ent dimensions of Social Europe varies across countries. However, by analysing attitudes towards all these facets simultaneously, the study sheds light on the structure of citizens’ attitudes and reveals that public attitudes towards such different dimensions of EU-level social policy cannot be reduced to a single pro- versus anti-Social Europe attitude. Public support is likely to vary strongly depending on the specific constellation of Social Europe put forward.

Therefore, the really interesting debate is not so much about the expansion or compression of EU social policy-making, but about what kind of Social Europe is desirable in terms of policy objectives and which instruments can be used to achieve it.

Diverging expectations about the EU’s role in providing welfare

One of the key question in understanding whether and why Europeans support specific interpretations of Social Europe is whether they perceive European integration as an opportunity or threat to their national welfare arrangements. According to data from the 2016 European Social Survey (ESS) collected in 18 EU Member States, strongly diverging expectations about the EU’s future impact can be found among European citizens. About 30 per cent of survey respondents believe that the level of social benefits and services in their country will increase with more EU decision-making, whereas about 37 per cent expect it will decrease and about 33 per cent expect neither. This finding suggests that the EU’s renewed ambition to strengthen its social dimension, as reflected in the proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, triggers hope as well as concerns among Europeans.

Behind this general pattern lie large cross-national differences. Figure 1 shows public expectations within each individual country, ranked from least to most positive. Few people in Northern and Western Europe expect more EU decision-making to increase the level of social protection in their country. In those regions, people are particularly susceptible to the idea that European integration might pose a “threat” to the national welfare state. Populist parties have seized upon this idea to appeal to voters concerned about their social protection. In contrast, people in Eastern and Southern Europe have far more optimistic expectations about the EU’s impact on the domestic level of social protection. The further development of EU social policy in these countries will be watched with hope rather than fear and seen as an opportunity to enhance social systems while catching up with the EU’s more developed welfare states.

Towards a European minimum income benefit?

Whereas in 2018 more than 86 million Europeans were at risk of poverty, adequate minimum income has been set as a priority in the European Pillar of Social Rights. Principle 14 states: “Everyone lacking sufficient resources has the right to adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life, and effective access to enabling goods and services.” One possibility for giving meaning to the Pillar and improving the adequacy of minimum incomes across the EU would be to establish an EU-wide minimum income scheme. This raises the salient question of whether citizens are willing to support such an initiative.

New empirical research based on the 2016 European Social Survey sheds light on public support for a European minimum income benefit (Baute & Meuleman, 2020). Respondents in 18 countries were asked to indicate the extent to which they support an EU-wide social benefit scheme for all poor people. Hereby, it was mentioned that the purpose is to guarantee a minimum standard of living for all poor people in the EU, the level of social benefit people receive will be adjusted to reflect the cost of living in their country, and the scheme would require richer EU countries to pay more into such a scheme than poorer countries. This proposal is notably more revolutionary than a regulatory EU framework on national minimum income schemes, since it is also redistributive across countries. The transfers are designed to compensate Member States with the least generous systems for the unequal financial efforts imposed by a binding EU framework on minimum income schemes. On average, two in three respondents expressed support for an EU-wide social benefit scheme that would guarantee a minimum standard of living for the poor. This signals that Europeans are definitely open towards more EU initiatives on minimum income protection. Yet, behind this relatively strong support in general, public opinion varies across EU member states. How can this be explained?

„The really interesting debate is not so much about the expansion or compression of EU social policy-making, but about what kind of Social Europe is desirable in terms of policy objectives.“

At first glance, the generosity of national welfare systems seems the crucial driver of cross-national differences in support. As Figure 2 shows, in countries where the minimum income is more generous, people are more opposed towards creating a European minimum income scheme. However, more sophisticated data analyses reveal that the generosity of national minimum income benefits only has an indirect effect on citizens’ support. The underlying mechanism behind the effect of national policy and citizens’ support is precisely public expectations about the EU’s domestic impact. In other words, more generous welfare systems create lower expectations about the EU’s role in achieving certain social standards, which in turn decrease the level of support for an EU-wide minimum income benefit. To visualise this relationship, Figure 3 plots the level of support in each country against average expectations, almost producing a mirror image of the generosity of minimum income benefits. These insights suggest that expectations about the EU’s potential to enhance national social protection are an important driver of public support for Social Europe. They are also a key element behind the arguments over further extending EU social policy.

In interpreting these results, we should be aware that interstate transfers – which are part and parcel of the policy that was examined in this study – can as such decrease the level of support in rich Member States while raising it in less affluent member states. This hypothesis has been confirmed in the context of public support for European unemployment risk-sharing (Vandenbroucke et al., 2018). Polarization in European public opinion may thus be smaller when it comes to establishing EU minimum standards for income protection without any such transfers between the Member States.

Challenges and opportunities for Social Europe

In general, Europeans take a positive stance towards EU efforts to improve the adequacy of minimum incomes. In almost all countries in the ESS study, there is potential majority support for an EU policy proposal on minimum income protection which includes transfers between Member States.1 Behind this overall positive viewpoint, levels of support diverge within countries as well as between countries, although the latter divergence might be less pronounced if the policy examined had not included interstate transfers. These observations signal an interesting basis for political action.

First, people in less developed welfare states favour a European minimum income benefit more strongly because of their high hopes for upward social convergence. In those countries, citizens expect European integration to result in social progress, while in more developed welfare states, concerns about social dumping from Southern and Eastern Europe exist. To accommodate both the social aspirations in less developed welfare states and the social concerns in the most developed ones, the EU should take further steps. EU-level initiatives on minimum income protection can go hand in hand with EU efforts to fight social dumping, for instance by developing a European framework on decent minimum wages.

Second, besides cross-national differences, support for a European minimum income benefit varies significantly within countries, depending on one’s socio-economic background, ideological values and sense of European identity. Interestingly, groups with a lower socio-economic status, such as people with low educational levels and incomes, and social benefit recipients, most strongly favour a European minimum income benefit. This is an important observation, given that such vulnerable groups have typically been found to be more Euro­sceptic. An EU initiative on minimum income protection may thus constitute an opportunity to increase the EU’s social legitimacy among those groups that generally feel left behind by the European project.

„Europeans take a positive stance towards EU efforts to improve the adequacy of minimum incomes.“

Although the EU’s role in social policy is a sensitive issue, we can conclude that public opinion points to multiple levers for constructive dialogue between and within Member States on strengthening the European social model.


Some caution is warranted when deriving majority support from survey results. The respondents considered a proposed EU policy framed in terms of guaranteeing a minimum standard of living for all poor people in the EU. The result of an “actual vote” after a (polarizing) political campaign might deviate from the survey results because of the different framing in which opinions are formed.


  • Baute, S. und Meuleman, B. (2020). Public attitudes towards a European minimum income benefit: How (perceived) welfare state performance and expectations shape popular support. Journal of European Social Policy. Published ahead of print. doi: 10.1177/0958928720904320.
  • Baute, S., Meuleman, B., Abts, K., & Swyngedouw, M. (2018). Measuring attitudes towards social Europe: A multidimensional approach. Social Indicators Research, 137(1), 353–378.
  • Vandenbroucke, F., Burgoon, B., Kuhn, T., Nicoli, F., Sacchi, S., Duin, D. van der, & Hegewald, S. (2018). Risk sharing when unemployment hits: How policy design influences citizen support for European unemployment risk sharing (EURS), AISSR Policy Report 1.
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