The European Union: Step by step towards a stronger citizenship

Henri Vogt
Professor of International Politics, University of Turku

Online publication Future of Europe
© SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health, February 2019

Those who move inside Europe frequently notice what huge differences there are in the social security systems on our continent and what concrete difficulties this causes to individual EU citizens. We should not seek a fast reduction of these differences, however, as it would endanger the stability obtained in the EU. But attention should be paid to how the European citizenship could be promoted to enable incremental change in policies. This is challenging at the time of crisis talk and pervasive individualism.

With my German-French wife and our little sons, we moved from Finnish Turku to German Saarbrücken in the summer of 2016, and at the same time, I started my parental leave. Particularly since then, but during the children’s Finnish years already (2011–16), our multi-European family has burdened the Finnish Social Insurance Institution Kela a great deal. There have been many questions about our social protection arrangements; the rules and guidelines have often proved ambiguous; several problems have remained unanswered. Lately we have been on the brink of frustration trying to find out how a Finnish au pair should be insured.

An obvious conclusion can be drawn from these experiences: a social security system spanning the whole of Europe ought to be arranged in a manner that would be easier and more supportive for the individuals. We are certainly not be the only ones who have had to navigate e.g. through family benefits when crossing boundaries.

A social security system spanning the whole of Europe should be arranged in a manner that would be easier and more supportive for the individuals.

I have also come to realise more and more concretely how much the social security systems in our continent differ from each other. E.g. the health insurances of Germany and Finland operate from totally different premises. The workload would hence be enormous, if these mutually differing systems were sought to be harmonised in more detail. Compared with such an exercise, such a symphony, the Finnish reform of the social and healthcare system currently underway would only appear to be a little finger exercise. And we could not be sure in this case either whether the new system would in the end be functional.

The foundation of the Union tolerates rocking

In spite of the diversity of the social security systems, however, the European Union has obtained a state of constitutional and institutional stability if the matter is examined in the light of the totality of European integration. The Union does not need to seek a dramatic change any longer or a significant deepening of integration to be able to function sustainably. The bicycle metaphor often connected to the Union – one must continue cycling to prevent falling down – is no longer necessary, as Kalypso Nicolaidis (2018) has recently argued. It also appears that a major disruption of institutional structures and deepening of cooperation is not a way that would be strongly seconded by the citizens; the present mostly intergovernmental framework suffices for the majority. It may be that the resignation of Great Britain from the Union only reinforces the stability, if the exit takes place in a civilised manner.

It should also be mentioned that, in principle, constitutional stability creates a legitimate realm of political arm wrestling on individual issues within the EU. It thus enables the workings of a more deliberative democracy. Finland should therefore not be afraid of voicing strong (but justified!) opinions in its Union policy. The basis of the EU tolerates rocking.

Both these issues, the heterogeneity of national systems and the stability of integration, mean that in developing its (social) policy the Union should seek only gradual change, as stability should not be questioned. In other words, it is important to carry out common, seemingly small policy actions which are still meaningful for the individuals. In the social sector, these could include, for example, more flexible transition times with regard to health insurance, acceptance of two domiciles within the continent or a more efficient use of social funds to even out financial differences. A kind of evolutionary pragmatism should hence be the guideline of EU politics.

It is important to carry out common, seemingly small policy actions which are still meaningful for the individuals.

Comparison with the state level is illuminating. We do not expect of the state that it would continue to deepen or evolve. It just is, and so should the Union.

Next to this pragmatism by small steps, caution even, we have much to reflect upon and improve regarding how we think of Europe and its integration; how it becomes part of us, as humans and above all as European citizens. The current turnouts of EU elections are not satisfactory in any way. Indeed, institutional stability would be likely to produce more useful results if the citizenship of Europe was more highly valued. We should start our deliberations by asking: What kinds of factors define the nature of Europe’s democracy and the related citizenship in our time?

Megatrends of our time as determinants of citizenship

Two major circumstances or even megatrends, one based on public (imaginary?) images and the other representing the common ethos of our time, would seem to determine how citizenship is being understood in Europe (and maybe elsewhere?). Let us call them by the mouthfuls “crisis consciousness” and “innovation individualism”.

Firstly, we live in a growing state of imminence and turmoil of crises. Some of the threats are genuine, and some are produced by public discussion or somehow strengthened by it. Our awareness is dominated by headlines such as ”Liberal democracy is breaking”, ”Climate change will challenge the conditions of living”, ”Microplastics will destroy the ecosystems of oceans”, ”The number of men’s sperm cells is decreasing drastically”, ”The immigration wave of 2015 was just the beginning” or ”We live in the post-fact times”.

The world order as we know it seems to be breaking in several places and thoroughly; politically, environmentally and ethically. In such a situation people’s need for security increases. The attainment of security becomes the primary motive of social action – and taking action when overcome by feelings of insecurity is not necessarily democratic any longer. At the same time, the means of politics, even at the European level, appear far too limited compared to the size of the threats. This state of affairs makes many turn away from politics or triggers them to look for new forms of political expression – and these may be questionable at times.

The reaction to threats tends also to define what kind of political divisions or cleavages arise in society; the divisions are no longer based on the production structure or religion or ideological controversy. Someone believes something to be a threat, but someone else does not see it as a special problem. One is optimist, the other an alarmist.

The definition of the other megatrend comes from Pierre Rosanvallon, the leading French theorist of politics. In his new book, or intellectual memoirs, Rosanvallon (2018) reflects upon the changes in working life and in the nature of individualism. His major argument is that production, employment, work and society based on work rely increasingly on the need to be innovative. It is hence vital to be flexible at work, constantly changing, constantly creative – constantly different from the others.

The form of individualism related to this thus emphasises the uniqueness of the individual compared to the others, even solitary individualism, l’individualisme de singularité. It is different from traditional democratic and liberal individualism that was based on people’s similarity and equality in relation to political decision-making, political society and above all the state. Acting as a citizen under this present form of individualism is obviously far from self-evident.

Innovative individualism also creates new political cleavages in the societies it governs, in this case Europe. Many people do not have the will or desire to constantly innovate – and they may feel that they are excluded from the mainstream of society. Alternatively, they may desire a familiar and secure basis for life to counterbalance the expected innovativeness, for example a national community.

Both these megatrends of our time thus seem to weaken and even dissolve the European political community. They create new division lines over which human communication cannot necessarily reach; it becomes difficult to talk of a shared European culture. Still the idea of citizenship also contains the view that it would be possible to formulate a common will of the citizens, a shared understanding of the direction towards which we wish the society to develop.

Means to strengthen citizenship

It is, however, not impossible to oppose the emerging divides and general scepticism towards politics and simultaneously strengthen the idea of citizenship. This is well in line with the desired pragmatism of EU policy-making discussed above. Promoting the equality of people instead of their innovativeness, emphasising European tolerance, not only in the sense of tolerating others but also respecting them, and supporting political institutions and practices that do not humiliate anybody exemplify these possibilities (cf. Vogt 2016 for more details). Moreover, if we succeeded in generating new mechanisms for political participation, such mechanisms that would systematically take into consideration the long-term nature of decisions and the future generations, people would surely begin to appreciate their role as citizens more than they now do (cf. the aims of the project “Participation in long-term decision making” , It is clear that political elites have special responsibility for nursing and spreading these kinds of ethical guidelines.

It is possible to oppose the divides and general criticism of politics and at the same time to promote the idea of citizenship.

Efficient social policy and appropriate social benefits, which would be ultimately regulated by the European Union, could also ameliorate the situation. They could e.g. help to defend the equality and sense of dignity between people, the citizens.

Inside the EU, however, thinking of the social sector still appears to be too limited and biased. A typical example in this sense is the concept pair market making and market correcting which basically covers well what the social policy in the Union is intended for. The goal it either to enable the flexible and market-supporting transfer of labour inside the continent or simply to remedy the drawbacks created by problems such as unemployment. According to recent research (Copeland & Daly 2018), prevalent in the European Union in recent years has been the market making policy, although the recommendations given by the Union to national actors have often comprised features of both options.

Such concepts emphasise the role of markets too much, however. They do not pay sufficient attention to how social policy could be utilised to strengthen the idea of a European citizenship at a time shaped by the two above-mentioned megatrends. Instead of the market logic, the objective should be that the chosen policy line somehow consolidates people’s sense of freedom and power. We need freedom to make reasonable choices in our lives, to uphold the category of choice in the first place. And we need power and resources of power, not only to enact those individual freedoms of ours, but to constantly exercise control over the political machinery that we belong to and, as consequence, to sustain the belief that we can better our living conditions through politics. Freedom and power go together and require a functioning representative relationship with political decision-making.

Ultimately it may be that advancing politics of freedom and power requires listening to ordinary people much better, even at European level. In other words, paying attention to such unexciting stories as the one told in the beginning of this article.

In the end, we simply purchased a travel insurance for the au pair; otherwise we rely on Kela.


  • Copeland, Paul & Mary Daly (2018), ’The European Semester and EU Social Policy’, Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 56, no. 5.
  • Nikolaidis, Kalypso (2018), ‘Braving the Waves. Europe’s Constitutional Settlement at Twenty.’ The Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 56, no. 7
  • ’Participation in Long-Term Decision-Making’, research consortium, funded by the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland for 2017-21; Universities of Turku, Tampere and Åbo Akademi, and Natural Resources Institute Finland
  • Rosanvallon, Pierre (2018), Notre histoire intellectuelle et politique 1968–2018. Paris. Èditions du Seuil.
  • Vogt, Henri (2016), ’Euroopan uudet jakolinjat ja niiden ylittäminen,’ [The new cleavages of Europe and overcoming them] in Jouko Kajanoja ja Eero Yrjö-Koskinen: Hajoaako unioni? Kirjoituksia EU:n kohtalonkysymyksistä [Will the Union disintegrate? Writings on the fatal issues of the EU]. Helsinki: Into Kustannus

This is an article of the online publication Future of Europe.
© SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health, February 2019