EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Social protection

Social protection systems are highly developed in the European Union. They protect people against the risks of inadequate incomes associated with unemployment, ill-health and invalidity, parental responsibilities, old age or following the loss of a spouse or parent. The ability of workers to sustain these risks and provide this support depends to a great extent on their employment context, and whether, and to what extent, individual capacity or collective solidarity at work can provide social protection.

The organisation and financing of social protection systems is a responsibility of the Member States. Nevertheless, the European Union has a particular role in ensuring, through EU legislation coordinating national social security systems, that people who move across borders and hence come within the remit of different social protection systems are adequately protected. Such legislation mainly concerns statutory social security schemes.

The Treaty of Rome of 1957 did not mention social protection as a concern of the European Community, though Article 118 EC referred to the Commission having the task of promoting close cooperation between Member States in matters relating to social security. It was not until the Maastricht Treaty’s Protocol on Social Policy, in the Agreement on Social Policy, that one of the objectives of the Community was stated to be ‘proper social protection’ (now Article 151 TFEU), and the Treaty of Amsterdam declared that one of the Community’s tasks is promoting ‘a high level… of social protection’ (now Article 3(3) TEU).

Social protection became a central concern of the European Employment Strategy, due in large part to demographic changes up to 2010, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of retired people and a reduction in the number of working people.

Social protection in the form of social security is addressed by Council Directive 79/7/EEC of 19 December 1978. This directive seeks the progressive implementation of the principle of equal treatment for women and men in matters of social security ‘to the working population… whose activity is interrupted by illness, accident or involuntary unemployment and persons seeking employment – and to retired or invalided workers and self-employed persons’. Despite this potential broad scope, the principal interventions of the EU in the sphere of social security have concerned free movement of workers and equal treatment of women and men.

There remains considerable confusion as to the extent to which the EU is able to intervene in social protection and the Member States are willing to allow EU intervention. On the one hand, Article 153(1)(c) TFEU allows for the adoption of directives on ‘social security and social protection of workers’. On the other hand, already the Treaty of Nice amended the Social Chapter of the EC Treaty by adding ‘the modernisation of social protection systems’ to the list of areas where the Council may adopt measures designed to encourage cooperation between Member States.

More recently, the European Union has started to promote a closer cooperation among the Member States on the modernisation of social protection systems which face similar challenges across the EU. This cooperation takes place mainly within the Social Protection Committee (SPC) where the open method of coordination was developed and applied to the areas of social inclusion and pensions. A cooperation was also launched of health and long-term care and ‘Making work pay’, i.e. ensuring that social protection systems provide income security without discouraging employment.

In the field of social and health services of general interest, the EU is currently developing a more systematic approach in order to assist the Member States in maintaining high quality and universal access to these services and in their modernisation.

See also: Agreement on Social Policy; free movement of workers; social exclusion; social security.


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