Social Policy in the European Community Between Competition, Solidarity and Harmonization: Still on the Way From a Free Trade Area to a Federal System

2 Colum. J. Eur. L. 421 (1996)

Ingwer Ebsen. Professor of Public Law and Social Security Law, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt; Dr. iur. Mainz.


“Social policy” is a fairly vague term which may be associated with a range of substantive domains. In the context of the European Union, “social policy” must be understood in light of the legal traditions of the fifteen Member States, as well as in terms of the EC Treaty and secondary EC law, particularly Commission regulations and directives. For the most part, we can safely say that the two principal legal categories falling under this label are social security and labor law.

A. Social Security and Social Protection’

This category refers to benefits in cash or kind disbursed to protect individuals against common risks and needs. Among the various Member States, these include:
(1) benefits or pensions, compensation for disability or hindering gainful employment, retirement on the death of a breadwinner;
(2) medical treatment;
(3) compensation for occupational accidents and diseases, which is usually more generous than welfare benefits in cash and kind for congenital or non-workplace related impairments;
(4) unemployment benefits and employment promotion measures, including vocational retraining.
(5) nursing care,
(6) monetary and other assistance for families with dependent children;
(7) means tested and minimum income guarantees.

B. Labor Law

In the field of labor law, three main subjects are usually regarded as subjects of social policy:
(1) protective regulations pertaining to the labor contract, like minimum wages, restrictions on dismissal, special regulations for part time work or other atypical employment relations, and equal treatment of men and women;
(2) industrial relations, including representation of workers by works councils or similar institutions; and
(3) occupational safety and health at work.


The social security and labor laws of the fifteen Member States differ considerably, not only in benefit levels but also in the legal institutions and systemic principles underlying them. Such systemic differences reflect basic policy attitudes. On the one hand, some Member States favor insurance-based coverage of social risks financed by contributions (often shared between the insured and the employer) correlated to previous income or loss of income, administered by independent bodies. At the other extreme are Government administered social security systems, financed by flat-rate tax contributions. There are of course many possible combinations in between.

Among these basic differences, health care is an instructive case, in which national health systems with state-employed medical staff contrast with systems in which medical care is provided by self-employed doctors and privately-run hospitals. Again, many European systems fall between these two poles. For example, Germany relies on public health insurance funds which contract with self-employed doctors to deliver medical treatment as a benefit in kind to the publicly insured.

Labor law is also affected by different national traditions. Some systems provide protective regulations for the labor contract together with forms of co-determination of labor and management and even forms of neo-corporatism. Others rely on conflictual models of labor relations distinguished by minimal public regulation.4

In sum, these very abstract remarks are intended to remind us as we go forward of the great differences between the Member State systems of social policy.