‘The main characteristics of what will be the social model of a united Europe’, wrote Wolfgang Streeck recently, ‘are less clear today than they were ten or twenty years ago.’
The welfare states of the Old Continent crossed the threshold of the twenty-first century in a state of profound uncertainty. Despite gloomy predictions of their irreversible crisis and inevitable collapse, they are by no means in their death throes and still enjoy widespread and deep-seated political consensus, as foundational elements of the specific identity of European societies and of the European model of ‘civilizing’ a capitalist economy. Nevertheless, the political-economy presuppositions on which they had been re-established as supporting planks of the social contracts underpinning the post-war reconstruction of the nation-states of Western Europe have altered drastically and definitively.
The state of uncertainty concerns the actual meaning and direction of the processes of restructuring or readaptation, experimentally launched as early as the 1990s, that were imposed by the radical changes brought about by the new political economy, both domestic and international.
More and more commentators are rightly remarking that – although very significant, especially in terms of the future outlook – the challenges arising from the globalization of capital and financial markets and from increasingly fierce international commercial competition are not the only ones that European welfare states find themselves having to confront today, and probably not even the most important and impelling.