How do European governments deal with inequalities? Drawing on a new book, Paul Cairney, Michael Keating, Emily St Denny and Sean Kippin argue that while many effective policy approaches and interventions exist, governments habitually make ambitious sounding promises without knowing whether they are feasible and coherent. There is a general reluctance to engage in the messy business of trade-offs that inevitably result from such debates.
How do European policymakers understand, define, and address inequalities? Within the European Union, there is a high degree of commitment to tackling inequality and inequity in their various guises. For example, much attention has been paid to ideas associated with territorial cohesion and spatial justice.
The former refers to the objective of the EU to promote ‘balanced and harmonious territorial development’ between areas, and to ‘reduce disparities between the levels of development of various regions’. The latter is more contested, but tends to refer to an ability on the part of citizens to access public services and to benefit from economic opportunities wherever they are across the continent. Despite these commitments, inequalities stubbornly persist, and are in some cases widening.
Pursuing such goals is complicated by several factors. One is the ‘multilevel’ nature of contemporary policymaking. For example, even in relatively centralised political systems such as Ireland or the UK, decision-making authority is still split across multiple levels of government, from local through to supranational via regional and national tiers of government.
Further complicating matters is a comparable spread of power across the different agencies and departments of government. This ‘polycentricity’ is compounded by the cross-cutting nature of policy, where decisions made in one area may influence conditions in another profoundly.
Further, influential ‘policy communities‘ process much routine day-to-day policymaking, out of the sight and mind of either the public or, at times, even those nominally responsible for carrying it out. The result is a high potential for policies to be made in an uncoordinated manner and to result in an overall incoherence that undermines policymakers’ grand aspirations.
Our studies of policymaking and inequalities bear these lessons out. Taking into account the ‘functional requirements’ of policymakers (i.e. what they think they need to deliver successful policy), we investigate efforts at ‘intersectoral’ policymaking in four key areas.
One such area is regional policymaking, where there has been significant innovation to ‘rescale’ politics towards ‘meso’ level government. In some regions we find some progress towards the creation of sub-state welfare regimes which seek to overtly address the territorial inequalities within countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Italy. We can also identify promising examples of active labour market policies and minimum income guarantees. However, these agendas often arise in response to gaps created by central government retrenchment.
Health in All Policies (HiAP) agendas – as multi-sectoral, cross-cutting approaches to improving public health – exhibit great potential for tacking inequalities. Advocates emphasise ‘upstream’ policy change to address the social determinants of poor health (for instance through tackling poverty, unemployment, and ensuring a clean and safe environment). This agenda has achieved significant on-paper buy-in from national and European Union policymakers, but oftentimes these same actors baulk at the significant political trade-offs which result from a commitment to address, say, income inequality.
Indeed, policy interventions to address such issues, such as higher tax rates on the wealthy, require engaging in difficult and potentially unwinnable political conflict with powerful societal interests. Further, some governments may be unwilling, for associated political or ideological reasons, to countenance such an approach. A ‘neoliberal’ reluctance to tackle such interests often acts as a decisive barrier to the realisation of a genuine health equity agenda.
Whereas HiAP studies identify neoliberalism as a powerful externality, education equity scholars highlight its role within powerful education policy communities. Here, neoliberal approaches predominate attempts to address inequality, where dominant actors seek to engage in ‘streaming’ students within schools, to embrace market style mechanisms such as school rankings, the championing of ‘charter’ or ‘academy’ schools, and the equalisation of ‘per student’ funding across institutions.
‘Social justice’ oriented approaches meanwhile reject this analysis, advocating instead for education as a public good, which is professionally led, and with greater funding to be attached to poorer areas and communities. Significantly, Finland, the European country which most closely corresponds to a ‘social justice approach’ frequently appears high in international education system rankings. As with HiAP, we identify ‘out of school’ factors which profoundly impact the scale and nature of ‘achievement gaps’, but an unwillingness on the part of policymakers to put out of joint the noses of those who may lose out from any attempts to meaningfully address them.
In gender, some countries (notably Sweden) have enjoyed considerable success in bringing a focus on inequalities between men and women to the forefront of the policy agenda, creating institutions to ensure that a concern with gender is ‘mainstreamed’ throughout government and beyond. However, in general we find the same pattern: governments appear willing to make vague rhetorical commitments to equity, but exhibit reluctance to engage in the difficult political trade-offs associated with meaningful change.
For example, the UK government is theoretically committed to addressing issues such as the gender pay gap and the full integration of women as equal participants in the workforce. However, neither main political party seems willing to address the continuing issue of childcare provision, where costs are the highest in Europe and present perhaps the single greatest hurdle to the equal participation of women and men in work.
What conclusions can we draw from an examination of these equity agendas? Firstly, we can observe that inequality is an ambiguous, complex, and contested problem. This leads to unresolved debates on whose inequality matters and whose responsibility it is to act. Second, governments tend to describe the problem, and the policy process, in a misleadingly simple way. Their aim is to make it seem like they are willing and able to make a difference, often by treating the problem as amenable to a technical fix, via an optimal policy mix and joined-up government. This is usually not the case. Third, governments tend to redescribe rather than solve the problems they face, particularly in relation to many low priority problems associated with inequalities.
Consequently, we identify a wide gap between aspirations of policymakers and campaigners, and what occurs on the ground. This may reflect the realities of a complex and de-centred system of policymaking, or it may instead reflect a deliberate strategy on the part of policymakers to exploit these limitations. They are left free to make a rhetorically radical case, safe in the knowledge that the difficult trade-offs and debates around values, winners, losers, and potential unpopularity – can be circumnavigated.
For more information, see the authors’ accompanying book, Public Policy to Reduce Inequalities Across Europe: Hope versus Reality (Oxford University Press, 2022), which is available for free via Open Access. The book summarises work from the Horizon 2020 ‘IMAJINE’ project.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: © European Union