Neoliberal Governance and Public Services in the EU: Are Disadvantaged Socio-Economic Groups Being Left behind?

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW1.1.02 (Tower One)
Judith Clifton, U Cantabria, Santander, Spain
Daniel Díaz-Fuentes, Universidad de Cantabria, Santander, Spain
Marcos Fernandez-Gutierrez, University of Cantabria, Santander, Spain
This paper analyses the European Union’s (EU) changing approach to public and social services regulation and demonstrates empirically how this change affects specific socio-economic groups of citizens across the EU. We use the theoretical literature on neoliberal governance to first explore the dynamics of this changing approach. In tandem with the EU´s intensified extension of market-oriented reform – particularly liberalization and competition – across an ever-expanding set of public and social services, from telecommunications to health, EU policy-makers have worried that specific socio-economic categories of people may become excluded from the benefits ostensibly produced by reformed markets. In particular, they articulate two main concerns. The first is that certain socio-economic categories do not enter the market in the first place, because these groups cannot afford services or because they find these new markets too complex. The second concern is that these disadvantaged socio-economic groups participate - but only in a “flawed” way - in these new markets, since they do not fully reap the benefits of market reforms due to their poor uses of the services. Their policy solutions, which replace the notion of collective rights to universal, affordable public services for an individualized consumer approach, stress the need for active consumers to make the market work, empowering consumers with more market information, and protecting consumers before and after consumption.

We argue that this change coincides with the consolidation of a neoliberal mode of governance at the EU level, whereby policy is guided by the “moral imperative linked to competition” (Amable, 2011): in consequence, citizens are no longer considered as citizens, with collective rights and social protection, but as consumers that require protection against enterprises and also against government. Collective rights to social protection and redistribution are substituted for a reciprocity contract between the individual and the society and posing competitiveness at the centre of social life.

After showing this, we demonstrate empirically the consequences of this policy shift for specific socio-economic groups through analysis of the EU-commissioned surveys implemented to evaluate these liberalized markets. Over time, these surveys on liberalized markets have changed as regards the profile of the respondents, the questions asked, the services included and the methodology. Not only does this reflect the shift to neoliberal governance, it also has important consequences for disadvantaged socio-economic groups.

Initially, the surveys included all citizens as respondents, asked on their satisfaction with liberalized services. Soon afterwards, respondents were disaggregated by socio-economic category and by being a consumer or non-consumer. Results showed that potentially disadvantaged socio-economic citizens were associated with lower satisfaction. Next, the surveys were transformed into Consumer Market Scoreboards from 2010. Non-consumers were excluded from the analysis of results. As an upshot the extent to which socio-economic difference impacted on satisfaction was significantly underestimated. We demonstrate empirically how the Commission's result of greater satisfaction was not a result of improved policy reform, rather, it was achieved by excluding the excluded.