Storming “Fortress Europe” in Search of a Social World


Europe is often viewed by members of other nations with admiration because of its long social tradition, some even arguing that it can date back to the medieval guilds when Western Europe was largely Theocentric.

The various national social welfare programmes as in Prussia / Germany (e.g. Otto Von Bismarck’s Staatssozialismus) and the coming of the welfare state in England in the post war years and the later social programmes in Scandinavian countries are often referred to as landmarks in the building of Social Europe.  More recently we had the Social Charter through the pooling of efforts of different political players.    In an October 2013 speech delivered at the Conference on ‘Restoring Socio-Economic Convergence in Europe,’ the former President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso stated:  “The social dimension is not a new, additional strand, something that we add to what is, let’s say, the core of Europe. The social dimension is an inherent part of the European project and of all that we have done over the years. We pursue an ambitious social agenda for all our Member States. The Europe 2020 agenda has given social issues top priority among the European economy strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.[i]

Globalisation in its hegemonic form, however, has become a constant threat. A recent European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)[ii] document indicates that the constant measures faced by the EU, to come to terms with globalisation, have led to misgivings among union sectors. The quest to be competitive is leading companies to reduce working conditions and employment possibilities. Globalisation has also placed the emphasis on skills training for employability rather than for the fostering of a broader public education concerned with issues of social justice and critical democratic practice.

There is talk of countries and their states reneging on the ‘social contract’, that part of the once dual function attributed to the modern state which sought a balance in a capitalist society between seeing to the accumulation of capital and at the same time answering the needs of people through social programmes to legitimate its democratic basis. Neoliberal globalisation, characterised by the mobility of capital, has been changing the state’s role in this regard.  It has been changing what were once perceived as public goods into consumption ones. Pensions, health and education, to name but three, have featured among those areas of social policy that have fallen prey to this system in which the market reigns supreme. Neoliberalism has affected not only the economy but social life in general.

As Greek sociologist, Panagiotis Sotiris argues “One should never forget that Neoliberalism is not just an economic policy. It is also the attempt towards production of a particular subjectivity centred upon economic self-interest and competition, in sharp opposition to other, more critical forms of subjectivity, such as that of the active citizen or the conscious worker.”[iii]

A new Taylorisation is creeping into social lives in many areas and as a result of a certain discourse positing that the skills required for the job market are also skills required for social life. Neoliberalism shapes people’s subjectivities. ‘Corporate Time’ gains the upper hand with respect to ‘Public Time’ [iv]as an organising principle in many sectors of life, not just the workplace: a regime regulating the rhythms of our life, according to corporate capitalist interests, often satirised on stage by playwrights including the recently deceased Dario Fo, just in the same way Charles Chaplin had satirised the earlier Taylorisation in the film ‘Modern Times’. As an educational sociologist, I will give the example of education.

We currently face the challenge of people learning more than their parents without enjoying the latter’s standard of living.  They learn more and earn less, thus becoming déclassé. This applies mainly to those coming from ‘middle class’ families but the same level of disappointment would affect those from working class families who make it through the educational system and who, despite their academic success, cannot match the standard of living of those in the past who attained these educational levels.

The chances of landing some of the most lucrative jobs to which their earned qualifications make them aspire become slimmer as the market is flooded by quality engineers and ICT specialists, from countries such as India and China, ready and constrained to work in Europe for lesser pay than similarly qualified Europeans would demand. The much coveted lucrative jobs guaranteeing a widely aspired to standard of living are at a premium.

Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton[v] challenge the taken for granted notion that the acquisition of greater education will lead to greater individual and national prosperity. They draw on a range of international research indicating the existing tough global competition for rewarding middle class jobs. They write of an “auction for cut-priced brainpower” backed by a higher education explosion worldwide which leads to a scramble for a few good financially rewarding jobs.We are seeing an element of précarieté even affecting high skilled personnel such as doctoral graduates who work on precisely defined contracts. They are constantly unsure about their future and cannot have the stability acquired by similarly skilled people in earlier times, the times when most of us here were being brought up. The situation is writ large among those with lesser skills and qualifications.

The EU’s concerns in this regard lead it to place the accent on education for ’employability’ which alas does not mean employment. This is often done at the expense of a broader more socially empowering education for the majority of students, mainly working class men and women, and including migrants. There is also the tendency to accord education a function it does not have: changing society on its own. A ‘jobs crisis’ is turned into a ‘skills crisis’[vi]. The global economic system’s inability to create jobs is misconstrued or deliberately misrepresented as people lacking the necessary skills. The focus then becomes that of educating people to fit the economy, often in different ways, reflecting present social stratification features, rather than that of helping in the formation of social actors ready to engage critically with the economy, a prerequisite to contribute to a process of changing the economy on social justice and sustainable grounds.

We should be under no illusion that all is well in the current supranational state of Europe.  Suffice to mention the poverty levels reached on the basis of the EU’s standards concerning what constitutes poverty, with former President Barroso predicting, at a poverty conference in Brussels, two years ago,[vii] that it can reach 100 million by the end of the Millennium.  This point is confirmed by Europe 2020 indicators revealing that “number of people at risk of poverty might remain at about 100 million by 2020.[viii] One should also mention the documented sharp rise in anxiety cases resulting from the precariousness of what the recently departed Zygmunt Bauman called ‘liquid life’.[ix]

While I do not deny the importance of health services in this regard, treating the mental contraptions involved, I would argue for a general more socially and critically responsive education that highlights the structural causes of such a rise in anxiety-related cases[x]. Social well-being requires, in my view, not simply anti-biotics, but social justice oriented change. Otherwise social wellbeing becomes another form of accommodation to the current neoliberal scenario which creates a few winners and several losers.

A sound education for Social Europe should in effect be an Education for a Social World. Any social concerns should not be limited in conception to social solidarity within the confines of one continent but extend to the rest of the world and the cosmos. The recent EU summit in Malta, the country which currently holds the EU Presidency, indicates that Europe is light years away from taking this view with some politicians at the event agreeing that a deal be struck with Libya to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. There was no expression of concern regarding the anarchic conditions prevailing in a country with two governments who might not be there in years to come given the volatility of the situation.[xi]

We need to avoid a Eurocentric view of what is a healthy social living inside Europe and beyond – terms such as ‘burden sharing’, used with regard to migration, have Eurocentric connotations. There is a need for new forms of solidarity extending beyond national and continental confines.  Social classes are truly international spanning North and South. The precarious working class includes not only ethnically and gender differentiated ‘autochthonous ‘ populations but also migrants from outside and within Europe.

We also need to avoid an anthropocentric view of what we regard as a healthy education.  Everything is related throughout the cosmos. What we need is an education which conceives of people and other species as relational beings.[xii] Actions in one place have ramifications for life elsewhere.

The generation of wealth and its concentration in what we call ‘the North’ occurred throughout history to the detriment of what many perceived and constructed as disposable lives in the South – think of the wealth extracted, at the expense of breathing human lives in the mines of Latin America, as Spanish ‘booty’. Much of this made its way to creditor countries in Northern Europe, as described by Eduardo Galeano in the Open Veins of Latin America: “Spain owned the cow while others drank the milk”.

Let us not allow this conquistador mindset of treating others as ‘disposable’ to continue today.  This situation is exacerbated by the strident voices of the rising far right riding on the populist wave triggered by fear through the insecurity caused by, among other things, Neoliberal politics. We blame situations on those from the South whose instability and desperation partly results from our continent’s policies past and present. I am thinking of migration from outside and within Europe. This occurs as a result of several factors. I would mention some here: civil wars fueled by a Western-based arms industry and exacerbation of tribal conflicts often resulting in rape and being disowned by family; the attempt among women to avoid female genital mutilation; evading religious fundamentalism; the negative effects on African farming of subsidies provided to farmers in other continents; the negative effects of climate change; an impoverished environment (the ransacking of Africa); and a colonial ideology which presents the West as the Eldorado and a context for the “good life”; structural adjustment programs (the proposed USA-EU bilateral agreement, the T-TIP,[xiii] can have similar effects within and outside Europe especially in the South), the quest for better employment opportunities . . . and one can go on,[xiv] perhaps falling prey to western stereotypes and homogenized constructions of  Africa and Africans.[xv]

Neither should we allow our concerns with material prosperity to overlook the ramifications for Planet Earth which we have borrowed from future generations. Hopefully the UN’s emphasis on the Sustainable Development Goals[xvi] and the ensuing recommendations deriving from research and other considerations around them will help direct education away from the current tendency towards encouraging two dimensional beings and move us in the direction of developing people as social actors – social actors with a strong planetary consciousness. Much depends on how the UN can influence global policies.  Unlike the EU it lacks the structuring financial incentives to do this. The experience of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) does not bode well but hope springs eternal.

All is related and connected in this world.  The Social Europe I would like to see is therefore one that exists in harmony and in solidarity with a Social World and an Ecocentric World at that.  A “Fortress Europe’ is no Social Europe at all.


[i] Josè Manuel Durão Barroso (2013) Speech by President Barroso at the Conference on Restoring Socio-Economic Convergence in Europe, Brussels: European Commission

[ii] See document:

[iii] See Panagiotis Sotiris, (2014) ‘The New ‘Age of Insurrections’ and the Challenges for the Left (Thoughts on the aftermath of the Turkish revolt) in The Gezi Revolt: People’s Revolutionary Resistance against Neoliberal Capitalism in Turkey, Gezgin, U.B, Inal, K and Hill, D (Eds.), Brighton: Institute for Education Policy Studies. Page 319.

[iv] See Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux (2004), Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era, New York and Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave-Macmillan

[v] See Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton (2010) The Global Auction. The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs and Incomes, New York City: Oxford University Press.

[vi] See Judith Marshall (1997), ‘Globalisation from Below. The Trade Union Connections’ in Walters, S. (ed.), Globalization, Adult Education and Training. Impact and Issues, London and New York: Zed Books; Leicester: NIACE.

[vii] Conference ‘The Europe 2020 Poverty Target: Lessons Learned and the way forward’ Brussels, 9th October, 2014.  (EC, 2014)

[viii] Europe 2020 indicators – poverty and social exclusion Data from March 2016.

[ix] See Zygmunt Bauman (2005) Liquid Life, Cambridge UK; Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press.

[x] See Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy (2013) Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics, Winchester (UK): Zer0 Books

[xi] See Michael Grech (2017) ‘L-Ewropa ta’ Kajin’ (the Europe of Cain) Illum 15th February. Maltese.

[xii] See Edmund O’ Sullivan (1999) Transformative Learning. Education for the 21st Century, London and New York: Zed Books; Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Pope Francis (2015) Laudato Sí. On Care for Our Common Home. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

[xiii] Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership

[xiv] See Peter Mayo in Hrvoje Simicevic (2013) ‘Migration across the Mediterranean. When will Europe see that too many people have died?’ (interview carried out with Peter Mayo), Truthout, Monday, 9th December,

[xv] Regarding the final point made here, see Handel Kashope Wright, ‘Is this an African I see before me?”, transcript of a Keynote Address delivered at the public conference titled Perceptions of Africa: A Three Day Dialogue organized by the Museum of Anthropology,  University of British Columbia, Canada, in March, 2007 [accessed Feb 26, 2017].

[xvi] UN (2015) ‘Transforming our World. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,’ New York City:  United Nations

*  This article is based on an address regarding Social Europe delivered at the 2017 Arraiolos Chef de Cabinet Meeting, Verdala Palace, Malta in preparation for this September’s Malta conference of non-executive Presidents in EU member states., 2017).

Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).