In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered unprecedented government-mandated social and economic lockdowns across the globe. In Europe, the government lockdowns imposed from March 2020 onwards took a largely similar trajectory, putting public life on pause and bringing entire industries to a grinding halt. To avert the most dramatic economic and social consequences of these measures, European governments and legislators swiftly introduced extensive labour market and social policy measures aimed at stabilising the employment sector, preventing redundancies, and supporting those whose livelihoods the crisis most acutely threatened.
A group of legal researchers led by Professor Ulrich Becker conducted a comparative study of the labour market and social policy measures introduced in light of the on-going crisis in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom between March and October 2020. It focused in particular on three types of responses: 1) measures that aimed to stabilise the overall economy, including fiscal stimulus and tax reliefs, 2) measures that aimed to secure jobs, including job retention schemes and public compensation schemes, and 3) measures that sought to accommodate for the specific needs of individuals on a range of social benefits during the crisis. The chosen countries represent a variety of Western European welfare state and labour market models, which allowed the project to compare the social and labour market policies introduced against the background of different institutional frameworks.
In comparing these five European welfare states, the project examined the systemic characteristics and functions of the crisis instruments introduced during the first six months of the pandemic. In particular, it questioned whether the measures introduced were in some ways ‘typical’ for each respective welfare state, or whether they represented a systemic novelty. More precisely, the researchers asked whether the countries under investigation adopted measures in line with pre-existing approaches to different labour market groups, or whether the crisis rather prompted a fundamental policy shift. This allowed the authors to assess how well equipped the five welfare states were for a major economic downturn as that seen in the pandemic, and the extent to which different pre-crisis labour market compositions played a role in exacerbating certain challenges. At an even more fundamental level, the project posed the question of whether the measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 crisis expressed a novel understanding of state responsibility for individual economic security.
The project commenced in late March 2020, when the first lockdowns had been imposed and it became clear that European states were both adopting novel policy instruments as well as expanding existing provisions to counter the economic and social hardships of the crisis. The project resulted in a first Working Paper, published in May 2020, which analysed the nature of the measures introduced and compared the five countries under investigation in regard to how they responded to the crisis. In order to analyse the different national crisis measures over time, the project working group then traced changes to the initial measures taken at the beginning of the pandemic, and published a follow-up Working Paper in November 2020. The publications also assessed the transnational influences of different national crisis measures, and contained a discussion on the role of the European Union in the crisis.
In addition, the project has resulted in a journal article, to be published in a special edition on COVID-19 in the peer-reviewed journal Global Social Policy in mid-2021. The article concentrated its analysis on the differences in social protection measures for ‘standard workers’ and groups on the margins of traditional social security regimes, such as the self-employed, and individuals in what is often termed ‘precarious work’. The level of social protection offered to ‘non-standard workers’ before the crisis differed considerably between European countries. The crisis in turn prompted the rapid introduction of a variety of social protection measures for both standard and non-standard workers across Europe. Along with the radical changes that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to traditional conceptions of ‘work’, the crisis has intensified awareness among Europe’s policy makers for the manifold types of non-standard work in today’s labour economies, and raised the question of whether and how to include these groups more fully into the social welfare contract. For this reason, the various measures adopted to secure livelihoods across different labour market groups offered a well-suited arena for investigating the capacity of different social security systems to provide protection in times of economic downturn, as well as the potential effects of the current crisis in Europe’s welfare states.
An update and expansion of the case studies is currently in progress.