Retrospect: The Welfare State Futures Final Conference, 24 – 25 May 2018, Florence, Italy

The Final Conference of the Welfare State Futures programme took place last week at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, one of the leading research institutions in the areas of European studies and policy research.

One hundred and forty-one researchers and stakeholders from all over Europe attended the cross-disciplinary conference to debate current challenges and the way forward for European welfare states. Research results from the programme were discussed in 26 different panel sessions across all cluster of the WSF programme, reaching from the areas of health policy and child and family welfare over migration to globalization, welfare states and inequalities, and the question of welfare state attitudes of citizens.

The goals of the conference were multifaceted: One of the key aims was certainly to bring together research results from the different policy areas and to discuss them with peers, but also to identify common issues and patterns across projects, as well as global trends in European welfare and social policy. Bringing together researchers from all projects allowed participants to find intersections between their fields and to lay the basis for synergies in future research.

However, one of the main targets of the conference was also to go beyond identifying challenges and highlighting the policy implications of Welfare State Futures research in order to point out the way forward for European welfare states. That is why the conference invited practitioners from different key institutions such as the European Commission, the OECD, the WHO as well as different think tanks and ministries to participate, and provided a forum for exchange between researchers and practitioners to jointly discuss solutions to pressing problems of welfare states.

Overall, the image that evolved from the conference is that the welfare state has by no means lost the significance that it has had during the entire in the 20th century. Panelist Anton Hemerijck (Professor of Political Science and Sociology, EUI) accurately formulated this assessment in the final roundtable as “the welfare state is here to stay.” One of the findings refuting the dominating idea of the European welfare state in crisis comes from the research into preferences and attitudes which actually show continued support for welfare.

Nevertheless, it also became apparent that European welfare states will have to adapt to the manifold challenges they have been facing over the last years, such as the diversification of their residents. Consequently, many of the discussions evolved around the question whether to pursue a universal or targeted approach to social policy. While universal welfare state policies have long been upheld as a goal of progressive welfare states, some discussants argued that a one-size-fits-all approach to welfare is no longer adequate for addressing increasing and multi-dimensional sources of inequalities, as well as the manifold and complex issues that some people face.

To that end, what will be important will be listening more carefully to what people think about the welfare state. This was one of the points raised by final roundtable panelist Jet Bussemaker (Former Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science) who concluded that “we have to make different voices better heard”. In fact, research particularly from the Welfare State Attitudes Cluster showed that what practitioners and ordinary citizens thought did not necessarily align. There was also considerable variation in preferences between different countries, but also within countries. A future challenge of welfare states will be to bring together policies and citizens, but also different populations.

European welfare states might also have to re-conceptualize the relationship between European and national instruments. This point was highlighted particularly by keynote speaker Maurizio Ferrera (Università degli Studi di Milano) in the opening plenary panel where he presented his visionary idea of piecing together a European Social Union.

While the Welfare State Futures final conference pointed to some important  steps towards reform and re-conceptualization, it also demonstrated the need for long-term visions and novel solutions in the area of welfare. Much remains to do, and through having built a European network of researchers from all areas of policy, the Welfare State Futures programme will continue contributing to the process of re-thinking the Welfare State even in the future.

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