No. 8 : May-August 2013

Otto Holman

2013 - Year of the European Worker

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present status of 2013 - the year of the European worker?

Early 2013. The Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) proudly presented the launch of the European Year of Citizens on the tenth of January in Dublin. The objective of this project is to better inform the European citizens about their rights, which they have plenty of according to the Presidency:  ‘Citizens of the EU (…) enjoy a wide range of rights, which guarantee our personal freedoms, as well as our freedom to move freely throughout the European Union, our high standards of labour and social protection and our rights as consumers or passengers. These rights have a real impact on our daily lives. And yet many of us either take them for granted, or are unaware that they exist.’(1) So far so good. Let us take the ‘freedom to move freely’ as an example. The German Goethe Institutes in Spain have proverbially put the flag out on the occasion of the start of the Year of Citizens; the more young Spaniards get to know their rights, the more they will start German language courses in preparation of their imminent emigration to the Walhalla of ‘high standards of labour’.

Labour. How old-fashioned though, something of the twentieth century ... so unlike ‘us’ ... we the European citizens of tomorrow. We put emphasis on democratic accountability, transparency, good governance and we enjoy the liberty attached to the rule of law, free speech and citizen rights. In the postmodern world the differences between labour and capital, between have-nots and haves, between powerless and powerful, between left and right have become blurred and progressively replaced by relationships between consumers and investors, between welfare demanders and suppliers, between citizens and democratically elected politicians, and between tax payers and governors. Labour as in labour force, movement or, indeed, Day has lost relevance and impact. Welcome to the classless world of jobs and employment.

Or is this too simple a picture? Should we beware of throwing the baby of labour related social contestation out with the bathwater of a pre-postmodern lack of freedom and inequality? Maybe the slogan ‘Citizen’s Europe’ just boils down to an empty creed. Who really cares about citizen’s rights like freedom and deliberative participation in times of crisis and unemployment? Who wants to get informed by the European Commission and the Irish Presidency about his rights while being told to shut up for the rest of the year when it comes to labour rights? Who can accept that he is excluded from the labour market, knowing that he is in the rich possession of ‘a wide range of rights’? In essence, and at the end of the day, who really knows and cares about the so-called democratic deficit in the EU?

Jobs and employment then. In every member state attempts are made to boost competitiveness through so-called structural reforms. A closer look shows that these structural reforms by and large boil down to reducing public deficits and a further flexibilisation of labour markets. As to the latter, the eurocrisis is used to legitimise the current full blown attack on labour marker ‘rigidity’ and governments seem more successful now than during the last two decades. What the annual Employment Outlook of the OECD refers to as the reduction of Employment Protection Strictness, but in real life is better known as the relaxation of national ‘hire and fire’ regulation, has started to affect regular (as opposed to temporary) employment too. Wherever we look – at the ongoing reforms in Spain, at the government of technocrats headed by Mario Monti in Italy who successfully reduced the difference in legal position between the precari (temporary workers with limited rights) and posto fisso workers to the detriment of the latter, or at the Dutch Labour Party whose minister of social affairs in the coalition government with the Liberal Party is currently preparing a full-swing reduction of employment protection – we see the same sovereign-debt crisis induced reforms. Most economic scientists are now supporting the claim that the real reason for this structural adjustment is not the ambition to create more jobs, as business leaders and politicians still want to have it. The real reason is to increase labour market flows and hence productivity.(2) This in turn may result in the firing of older employees (the 50+ generation) who then at a later stage of the reform process may have to accept demotions and lower wages. In the short term, the question whether young entrants will proportionally profit from this development can only be answered by looking at the skyrocketing youth unemployment rates throughout the eurozone but notably in Greece and Spain.

In the years prior to the eurocrisis, the objective of labour market flexibilisation used to be presented in terms of ‘flexicurity’. The idea was that job security should be replaced by employment security. This could inter alia be realised by career guidance, active labour market policies and lifelong learning strategies, etc. In exchange for employment security the worker should accept less regulatory rigidity. In the words of a former prime minister of the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende, we should no longer talk about unemployment; ‘in between jobs’ would be a more appropriate term. Not so very long ago, this was the new thinking supported by unquestionably superior language (who wants to be qualified as rigid?). Problem is, however, that a flexicurity strategy cannot be applied in all member states in a similar (and similarly successful) way; that employment security cannot be guaranteed for all occupational groups in a similar way; that flexibility can be legally secured but employment security at least partially depends on private initiative; that employment security is an illusion at times of negative or slackening growth; and that we have entered a reality in which labour market flexibilisation as ‘structural reform’ is implemented but employment security is projected at the medium or long term. Today no politician dares to use the term flexicurity anymore. It is the sovereign debt crisis, you stupid!

Is Europe – i.e. the EU – to blame? Yes and no. In an abstract way, the current unemployment crisis is inextricably related to the process of European integration of the last 30 years. The decision to complete the Single Market has resulted in a spectacular increase in cross border contacts, networks and interdependencies.(3) In this sense it seems no longer appropriate to talk about national economies. If we take the Netherlands, my country, as an example we have to realise that more than 70% of Dutch foreign trade is with fellow member states and that Dutch business is fundamentally transnational, both in terms of activities and shareholding structure. This applies – to a more or lesser extent – to all the member states of the EU. Our dependence on Europe is thus an important explanation of our common position in the current eurocrisis. But the euro itself is co-responsible for the current unemployment crisis too. Governments, companies and citizens profited from the cheap credit practices until 2008, private banks were able to play the European financial markets with few if any restrictions, basically due to the absence of effective supranational regulatory authorities, and governments were able to rapidly increase their public deficits after 2007 again in the absence of supranational authority. This last conclusion also, and paradoxically, pushes into the direction of a no-answer to the above question. It is a favourite game to blame the EU for all the evils of today, but we have to realise that the EU is nothing more than the sum of what national governments have put in to it. The contestation that the European totality is more than the sum of its constituent parts reflects a belief in metaphysical forces or a fear of supranational authority, and both are evidently non-existent.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Given the above, can and will the EU do something about the current state of affairs? The answer must be, again, yes and no. The chasm between economic and monetary union, on the one hand, and the lack of a European capacity to act, on the other, has to be dealt with, one way or another. In the course of 2013 a number of decisions will be taken, bringing at least the eurozone countries closer to what is commonly referred to as a fiscal union. This may sound as a first and necessary step but it will not bring about anything close to a ‘Europe of the Workers’. As long as the current austerity race among EU member states prevails, the prospects for job creation are rather gloomy. And yet it may be crystal clear by now that the entire project of Ever Closer Union will remain an empty shell if labour is isolated and excluded from it. Class and class struggle may have become past history, but it is not unlikely that the next struggle in Europe takes the form of euroscepticism and populism.

The message is quite clear. The EU is in crisis, but it is above all the social crisis that is most damaging both for an entire generation of young people and for the process of European integration at large. Labour and European integration are intrinsically related, and mediated by what commonly is referred to as social cohesion. According to David Mayes, social cohesion is ‘the political tolerability of the levels of economic and social disparity that exist and are expected in the European Union and of the measures that are in place to deal with them’.(4) One can only speculate about how far this political tolerability can be stretched given the increase in economic and social disparity. A recent report of the European Commission came to a number of quite alarming conclusions. Divergence between member states is going hand in hand with social polarisation within countries – since 2010 the poorest quartile is affected the most by the deepening economic and social crisis in Europe. Long-term unemployment and the risk of long-term exclusion have increased, as well as poverty rates.(5) But the political tolerability is not only depending on existing or expected rates of polarisation and divergence, but also on the measures that are taken both at the national and European level. Here again the picture is gloomy. Austerity policies at the national level will create little leeway for social improvement.

At the European level the European Commission is expected to launch a Social Investment Package in the coming months but it is unclear where the necessary money should come from. In fact the whole debate on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) of the EU – at the time of writing the European Council had reached a compromise but the European Parliament was threatening to reject what ‘amounts to deficit budgets’(6) – showed that the politicians of today have accepted the ‘austerity decade’ (at least until 2020) as a fait accompli. Comments in leading newspapers were quite clear: ’EU hawks win long-term budget cut’, ‘net contributors win, crisis countries lose’ , and ‘research budget under pressure in new MFF’. The last quote is perhaps the most telling one. Although there is a slight reallocation of money towards research and development, the future-oriented policy boosting European competitiveness through innovation that Europe needs has been by and large postponed until after 2020. The short-term interests of national politicians - who care more about pleasing their respective constituencies with symbolic deeds than about designing long-term visions of how to pull Europe out of its current malaise – have prevailed once again.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

As long as these same politicians think that they can solve Europe’s problems through inward looking strategies and by neglecting the fact that labour has become a transnational European concern, they will continue to face the dilemma between eurocrisis induced austerity and rising social unrest. If they think that they can do without labour, somehow in the same way as the Obama administration believes that the US can wage war without involving human beings, then they make a historical mistake. The ‘labour drone-ification’ of business will remain utopian also in a structural long-term perspective, if only because labour income is (and will continue to be) vital for human survival (or reproduction). Do not trust in those who believe in a world where we can ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, etc.’. To rephrase Dostoyevsky’s famous dictum: ‘without labour, chaos’. For the EU and the European political (and business) elites this means that they can no longer abstract from labour in their technocratic attempts to solve the current eurocrisis. The alternative, a retreat into nationalism, would be disastrous.


  1. (1)See (accessed on 7 February 2013). See also the official EU ‘It’s about Europe. It’s about YOU. Join the debate’ website at

  2. (2) See for example John P. Martin and Stefano Scarpetta, ‘Setting it Right: Employment Protection, Labour Reallocation and Productivity’, in: De Economist, 160(2), June 2012, pp. 89-116. In the long run it may be questioned whether labour market flexibilisation will really boosts innovation and competitiveness, see Robert Vergeer and Alfred Kleinknecht, ‘The impact of labour market deregulation on productivity: a panel data analysis of 19 OECD countries (1960-2004)’, in: Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 33(2), Winter 2010-2011, pp. 371-408.

  3. (3)Perhaps the notion of complex transdependence would be the most accurate expression of what happened in the EU during the last three decades.

  4. (4)David Mayes, ‘Introduction: Conflict and Cohesion in the Single European Market: A Reflection’, in: Ash Amin and John Tomaney (eds.), Behind the Myth of European Union. Prospects for Cohesion (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 1.

  5. (5)European Commission, Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2012 (Brussels: Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, November 2012).

  6. (6)See the comments of the president of the European Parliament: Martin Schulz, ‘Why I will not sign up to Europe’s flawed budget deal’, Financial Times, 18 February 2013, p. 7.

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Otto Holman is Reader in International Relations and European Politics at the University of Amsterdam, member of the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, and visiting professor at the University of Lausanne since 2009. He has written or (co)edited several books and special issues of academic journals, and numerous book chapters and articles on international political economy and European integration.

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