1. The welfare state in 20 years — an attempted look into the future
by Jaroslaw Pietras Ph.D.
Minister for European Affairs, Poland
In today’s debate on a need for socio-economic transformations in Europe, one can frequently encounter an opinion that the welfare state, as we know it from the 20th century, sinks into oblivion. Ageing of the societies, high unemployment rate, low social activity and inefficiency of taxation and insurance systems preclude maintenance of high levels of social transfers. Without a radical reform of the foundations of the European social model, many of the European states can be threatened by bankruptcy. One can certainly ask a question — what shall come in exchange? Are we in time perspective of the coming 20 years to see a return of the late 19th century social model, where the assistance to the poor was founded on a charity and persons who — for various reasons — were unable to compete against others could solely count on support from their families? If it were so to happen, this would signify a return to a system that faced criticism not only from the most eminent philosophers or ethicists but also a vast majority of economists.
When reflecting on what social model of the state we will be dealing with in 20 years, first one has to go 20 years back and recall what the situation was like. This will give us proper perspective. Let us try to look at Poland today and 20 years ago, i.e. in 1985. Presently Poland is a member of the European Union and NATO; then we were a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance Council and Warsaw Pact. For a layman there has been no change here. Both now and 20 years ago we have been a member to an economic and military alliance. But the difference is huge. Let us have a look at the labour market situation. In 1985 there was no unemployment or unemployed persons in Poland. Did this ensue from excellent economic and social situation? Certainly not. There was simply no legal definition of unemployment since a job was guaranteed to everyone. At the same time employees’ efficiency was several times worse than the present level and an average salary was at the level of 20 to 30 euro. As people in Poland used to say then: the state pretends it pays, employees pretend they work. It is hard to imagine a system more demoralizing in economic terms. Let us also see how the migration situation has changed. In 1985 several dozen thousand people left Poland with the intention of staying abroad permanently. Those were usually people with university education, who did not see any development prospects in Poland for themselves. Most of them returned as late as in the 1990s, when they came to a conviction that their country of origin gave them better development opportunities than foreign countries. This year several dozen thousand people will come to Poland from many countries of the world. Just as Germany, Italy, France or the USA used to be destinations for Poles, now more and more frequently Poland becomes a dream place for living and working.
Those few examples show how difficult it is to forecast future in a mid-term perspective. In my opinion one has to be optimistic. The example of Poland shows that many things that seemed unattainable can be carried into effect in a very short time. If I may give the reins to my imagination, it seems to me that Cassandra-like forecasts of social ‘futurologists’ will fail to come true. In 20 years the European Union will be more powerful than it is now. A different social model will be in place, but it will be still founded on the rule of subsidiarity. A greater social activity will be needed, income differences will be most probably greater, but people in need will be always able to count on state assistance. Responsibility of governments of individual states will lead to a discovery of a golden mean — performing social reforms and winning social approval for them. This will allow for maintenance of individual and unique character of the European model, where a human being is treated as the most important subject of policy, and preclude transfer of simple solutions offered by supporters of the American or even Japanese model. If we are to attain that, however, we need to continue the debate on challenges we are facing today and those we will face in the nearest future. This purpose is served by making comparisons of various visions of social development.
Poland views this process from the point of view of the objectives we wish to attain within 20 years. Firstly, we wish to be an active member of the European union, one that has its own opinions on all major issues pertaining to the future of Europe. At the same time we wish to be a member that is open to compromises made in the name of a common interest. Secondly, we wish to catch up swiftly with the states that presently are at a higher level of economic development. Thirdly, we wish to ensure a high level of living standards to our citizens, which, however, must not signify simple transfers and systemic support for passive attitudes. A modern state should be socially active, i.e. ensure support to citizens in difficult situations. Each person needs to rest assured that he or she can count on the country. However, he or she must also be aware that he/she has certain obligations towards the country. The most fundamental of them is an active attitude and willingness to help himself/herself. In my opinion such an approach will allow for securing social welfare and developing a model that will survive longer than the one we are bidding farewell to now.
Tags: Lisbon strategy, retirement age, social policy, welfare Poland