1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009), Social Policy and Development (2000 - 2009)

Democratization and Social Policy in Southern Europe: From Expansion to "Recalibration" (Draft)



The prime meaning of the expression “Southern Europe” is geographical. In its broad sense, this notion denotes the lands stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the Bosphorus, including the largest islands of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Balearics to Cyprus. In a narrower sense, however, the expression is used to designate four specific countries located within this broad area: Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. In the social science debate of the last three or four decades, these countries have tended to be treated as a distinct “region” or cluster, sharing not only geographical, but also other, substantive traits. In this debate, the notion of Southern Europe has a richer, politico-economic connotation, which invites and facilitates intra-regional comparisons (Gunther, Diamandouros and Puhle, 1995).

On top of a common floor of substantive and “developmental” traits, there are of course big differences between the four countries: Southern Europe is not a “region” or a “family of nations” in the same sense as the Nordic area, for example. The authors agree however with Gunther, Diamandouros and Puhle (1995) in suggesting that there is sufficient evidence of similarities and shared experiences at the socio-economic and political levels for undertaking fruitful comparative analyses across the four countries.

Resting on this methodological assumption, this paper will offer a comparative discussion of welfare state developments in Portugal, Spain Italy and Greece since the end of World War II. The idea that Southern Europe forms a distinct cluster in general socio-economic, cultural and political terms, but also as regards the welfare state in particular started to be an object of debate in the early 1990s. But this idea could not be pursued based on the literature of the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, in fact, past research on the political economy of Southern Europe had largely neglected the social dimension; on the other hand, the mainstream comparative welfare state literature had not traditionally included Southern Europe (with the partial exception of Italy) within its samples of observation. Starting from the early 1990s, the social protection systems of the new Southern Europe have become however an increasingly investigated object of research, largely confirming the presence of common characteristics. Building on this literature, this paper try to pinpoint the main features and trajectories of development of the welfare state in the four countries, to identify the contextual factors which can be called into question for explaining such traits and trajectories and to discuss the present problems and future prospects of social policy in this area of Europe.

The paper is organized in four sections. Section I offers a historical reconstruction of welfare state developments from the early origins up to the late 1980s, highlighting some of the problematic features emerged from the interplay between the developmental sequence of social policies and its socio-economic context. Section II discusses the politics of welfare state expansion and the role played by social policy in consolidating and legitimizing the new democratic regimes. Section III illustrates the adjustment process of the 1990s, aimed both at responding to inherited problems and at modernizing social protection, also in the wake of European integration. Finally, section IV draws some comparative conclusions.