German Historical Institute London

17 Bloomsbury Square
London WC1A 2NJ
United Kingdom

Phone: +44 (0)20 - 7309 2050
Fax: +44 (0)20 - 7309 2055 / 7404 5573


calendar & information

Breadcrumb navigation:

The European Welfare State in a Global Context

11-13 April 2013

International Conference of the Goethe University of Frankfurt, the German Historical Institute London, the London School of Economics and Political Science

Organizer: Prof. Dr. Christoph Cornelißen (Frankfurt)

Venue: German Historical Institute London

The welfare state in its modern understanding represents a European invention. After the Second World War it extended its reach both in geographical and social terms, thus slowly eradicating the differences between the various worlds of “welfare capitalism”. Therefore, it cannot come as a surprise that many pioneering and comparative studies from diverse academic fields have identified the welfare state as a hallmark of European post-war history. Occasionally, it is even regarded as the basis of a common European identity.

These rather benign narratives, however, need to be confronted with alternative views. Firstly, research on the cold war period has shown the great extent to which the welfare state under communist rule paved the way for alternative welfare regimes which developed long-lasting effects for the period even after 1989. For this reason, Europe needs to be seen in a wider perspective which transcends the concentration on three or rather four “worlds of welfare capitalism”. Secondly, the western European welfare models entered a new phase of their development after the onset of economic and social crises in the 1970s. Since that time high rates of unemployment, demographic change (“ageing”) and escalating costs for health provision signalled a spiralling challenge politicians all over Europe found it hard to cope with. This situation led to strong calls for retrenchment or even a complete dismantlement of existing welfare structures. Thirdly, globalising forces increasingly altered the circumstances under which reforms of the welfare state could be envisaged in Europe. Factors such as world-wide migrations, a rising economic competition, but also the climate change and an increasingly pressing crisis of financial capitalism have given rise to doubts whether the European Welfare state will be globally sustainable in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Against this background the London conference on “The European welfare state in a global context” will address a series of questions. The first section will look into the divergences and convergences of diverse European models of the welfare state, thus highlighting parallels, transnational developments and national peculiarities. Does it really make sense to speak of a European welfare state at all, and can Europe be seen as a more or less unified world of welfare when measured against institutions, welfare regimes and social policies in the non-European world? The consequences of global challenges to the European welfare state represent the focus of the second section. Whereas globalization is regarded by several authors as if it spelled the end of the welfare state, their opponents have identified economic globalization and social welfare as being mutually supportive. The relationship between these tendencies is highly complex and several papers will, therefore, address not only the question of how welfare regime can be organised in a world with fewer borders but also how the new challenges filtered into the semantics on the welfare state. The third section will highlight post-colonial legacies in the field of social welfare. This subject has been largely neglected both by historians of empire and by experts on the welfare state. Recently, however, it has been highlighted that all European colonial powers pursued policies of a “developmental colonialism” which was to have long-term effects in the post-colonial world. In many respects the imperial legacy remained crucial for the structures of modern welfare states in the former colonies. Traditionally, the modern nation state has been regarded as the main actor in the field of welfare regimes. That this view needs to be corrected will be shown in the fourth section. Today transnational actors such as the OECD or the United Nations, but also the International Labour Office, play an increasingly important role in this field. Several the papers of this section demonstrate the historical lineages of these developments while others will highlight the importance of gender as a category which again transcends the borders of the European welfare state.

Conference programme (PDF file)

Conference report (PDF file), published in: GHIL Bulletin 35 (2013), Vol 2