Lessons Learned and Open Questions: Claus Offe on Welfare State Building in Post-Communist States

Offe_460w In Transit, translated in Eurozine:

All the new member states that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 – apart from the one and a half small Mediterranean islands of Malta and the southern part of Cyprus – share the quality of having emerged, after 1989, from the economic, social, and political regime of state socialism. One of the recurrent themes throughout the chapters of this volume are the following questions: To what extent can the evolution of CEE welfare states be accounted for in terms of path dependency and the continuity of state socialist as well as those institutional patterns that were adopted in the region during the interwar period? And to what extent do we encounter path departures that were conditioned by the two dominant novelties of (a) the breakdown of state socialism with the subsequent deep transformation crisis and (b) the accession of the new members to the European Union and its patterns of capitalist democracy, as well as the conditionalities governing eastern enlargement? In dealing with these questions, the authors share an analytical frame that dominates much of the academic literature on current affairs in CEE. Stated at the most general level, this frame suggests that what we see happening in the region must be accounted for in terms of a joint outcome of “the past” and “the West”.

As far as the past is concerned, the vanished state socialist institutional system nurtured, during its rule of roughly 40 years, expectations and notions of social justice that persisted after its demise, most importantly the expectation that government must take responsibility for high levels of employment. “Well after the transition, expectations about an expansive role for the state remained extremely high”. Moreover, institutional legacies, most importantly a strongly “Bismarckian” pattern of providing for social security, were inherited by countries of the region from the interwar period. Concerning “western” determinants of the shape of welfare state transformations in the region, there are also two factors of influence. One is the role of international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, in making strong and “conditionalist” suggestions as to how post-socialist states must adjust their pension and health systems. This was particularly the case when they were facing huge revenue deficits under the impact of the transformation crises of the first half of the 1990s. The other western factor is the European Union and the eastward diffusion of the various welfare state models of its member states. This role has been interpreted as following a “push” and “pull” mechanism. The push mechanism, originating with the EU Commission and the treaties of Maastricht (1992) and Amsterdam (1997), became effective when the prospects for eastern enlargement began to necessitate the “rationalization of social expenditure” in what were becoming candidate countries. But at least equally strong was a pull factor, which consisted in CEE political elites looking for templates in western European welfare states and drawing upon proposals coming from international organizations (the World Bank, ILO, Council of Europe, OECD) in order to adjust their own systems accordingly (Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier, 2005).