Interview with EuSocialCit former principle investigator Prof Frank Vandenbroucke


Interview with Frank Vandenbroucke

Photo interview Frank Vandenbroucke

In an interview by Dr Cinzia Alcidi, Head of the Economic Policy Unit at the Centre for European Policy Studies, Prof Frank Vandenbroucke explained what the EuSocialCit project is about and why it is needed. In his former role as principle investigator, Vandenbroucke used to lead the international consortium that is carrying out this ambitious 4-year research project, until his appointment early October 2020 as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health in the Belgian federal government.

Why do you think this project is needed?

FvB: “It has been repeated time and again that the EU needs a forceful and visible social dimension. I may surprise you, but our project’s aim is not to rehearse that argument yet again. Nor is it about convincing the European Commission that it has to add social ingredients to its policy repertoire! Fortunately, such efforts have already been undertaken. In 2017, the European Union solemnly proclaimed a European Pillar of Social Rights: a set of 20 principles about equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protection and inclusion. The Commission’s communication on the Pillar was pretty ambitious: it was said to be about “delivering new and more effective rights for citizens”. This is good news: the Pillar may become a policy agenda that sustains real momentum. In contrast, if the EU fails to deliver on the promise enshrined in the Pillar, the initiative will backfire and the frustration it generates will undermine any new attempt to equip the EU with a comprehensive social dimension, for a long time to come. Thus, the solemn proclamation of the Pillar in 2017 marked a point of no return: either it will be a sufficiently convincing and recognizable successful, or it will be a high-profile failure. This, then, is the reason why EUSOCIALCIT is needed: we will examine how European institutions, national governments and social actors can deliver on the Pillar.”

What do you think makes this project unique?  

FvB: “There is plenty of interesting research on the EU’s social dimension. However, EUSOCIALCIT has some unique features. Firstly, our research aims to be practical, but we will also explore some fundamental questions related to its focus on social rights. That is, social rights have often been seen as a quintessential element of national citizenship and nation state building. A general principle thus seems to be that the EU’s initiatives in the realm of social rights should fit well into the development of national policies. But an immediate and fundamental question is: how can the EU be of value in a realm which is so firmly rooted at the national level? What role could and should the EU play in the development of social rights? To answer that question, we will develop a novel conception of what social rights are, which goes beyond a purely legalistic understanding. Social rights are about empowering citizens. They are constituted by various ‘power resources’: normative resources (notably, but not only, legal resources), instrumental resources and enforcement resources. Hence, the specific question we try to answer in our EUSOCIALCIT project is: which power resources can be provided by the EU?

Also, it is of course critical to be able to explain the necessity of the EU seizing a role in the social rights realm. Therefore, our project also includes a conceptual and normative dimension in which we try to answer questions such as: what are social rights, why are they needed, why exactly should the EU intervene in the realm of social rights?

Lastly, an EU role in the development of social rights should also answer adequately what citizens expect from the EU and from their national governments. This is why the empirical basis of the project is being informed, among others, by such expectations.”

How will the project be beneficial to society?

FvB: “How should such a research project engage with society and make itself useful? That is an important question. How can academic research create knowledge that can be used by national and European policy-makers to strengthen social rights and EU social citizenship? First of all, we believe that academic research should not provide the answers to practical policy questions ‘from an ivory tower’. Hence, we will include stakeholders and listen to what citizens have to tell, by valorizing opinion research and organizing focus groups. Moreover, rather than coming up single-minded policy recipes, we will identify current gaps in the provision of social rights and alternative strategies to fill them. That is, rather than confronting stakeholders and policy makers with cut-and-ready recipes, we will present alternative scenarios, in order to inform their deliberation. This is the best way contribute to a durable strengthening of social citizenship.”

Who are the key stakeholders and how will you work these?

FvB: “For the project to be successful, we have to engage creatively with a large variety of stakeholders: policy-making bodies and agencies, both at the EU and at the national level; civil society organizations, independent networks and think tanks; legal practitioners… We will not only reach out to them to convey the results of our research, but also use their inputs and advice to inform and improve our research. We intend to organize a whole range of seminars, expert workshops and summer and winter schools, with that purpose in mind. We will also develop course material tailored to high school pupils and bachelor students.”

What is, given your expertise and earlier work, your own interest in this project?

FvB: “As a former minister in Belgium, I happen to have experience in practical policy-making in the social domain, and I also invested a lot in the European debate on social policy. Hence, the policy-relevance of what we are doing is important to me. However, my experience also tells me that clear-headed thinking on the reasons why and on the way in which the EU has to develop a social dimension is very important too. For the Pillar to have an impact on EU policy-making, a first condition is that its raison d’être is sufficiently powerful and well understood: it must be connected in a convincing way with functional necessities and broadly accepted aspirations of European integration; and it must fit into a consistent conception of the role the EU should play and the role it should not play in social policy. Yet, when insisting on the need for a coherent concept, I’m not calling for a purely conceptual debate: our understanding of the Pillar’s fundamental raison d’être must be tested by means of practical, concrete proposals. This is what the debate, and our research, is about.”