23 September 2015

Austerity brings extremism: why the welfare state is the key to understanding the rise of Europe’s far right

This blog was orginally published in the Huffington post.

The recent Greek election has resulted, once again, in a coalition government between the far left Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the far right Independent Greeks (ANEL). What has attracted less media attention so far, however, is the striking result for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn which increased its share of the vote from 6.28 to 6.99%, gaining 18 seats in a parliament of 300, and remaining third strongest party. This indicates that the Golden Dawn remains a considerable presence in Greek politics since its first entry in the Greek parliament in 2012. And, it is a striking result for a party that is not only extreme, violent, and espouses Nazi ideology, but is also currently on trial for maintaining a criminal organization. Only a couple of days prior to the election, the party’s leader publicly accepted “political responsibility” for the murder of left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas.

But the rise and resilience of far right parties is not confined to Greece. While neo-Nazism is indeed a more isolated phenomenon, the far right more broadly- i.e. parties that centre their attention on nationalism and xenophobia - is becoming increasingly popular across Europe. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, four far right parties received more than 20% of the votes cast: Austria’s FPÖ, Denmark’s DF, Britain’s UKIP and the French FN. Several others received over 10% of the votes cast including the Dutch PVV, the True Finns, and Hungary’s Jobbik. A number of these parties are also faring quite well in their domestic electoral arenas, for instance the French FN in 2012, the Austrian FPÖ in 2013, and the DF in Denmark as well as UKIP in the UK in 2015.

The most popular explanation for the rise of the far right in Europe is the on-going economic crisis. This answer has both historical and theoretical appeal. Historically, the rise of Nazism in interwar Europe followed the 1929 major financial crash. Theoretically, economic crises are associated with the rise of the far right because the dispossessed are more likely to punish the mainstream and opt for extreme or anti-establishment parties.

But the crisis is, at best, only part of the story.  Unemployment rates do not correlate with levels of far right support.  While Greece, which does have high levels of unemployment and suffered greatly from the crisis, did experience the rise of the Golden Dawn, other countries that have suffered from the crisis including Spain, Portugal and Ireland have not experienced a similar rise: Spain 2000 and National Democracy (DN) have remained marginal in Spain, the same is the case for the Portuguese National Renovator Party (PNR), and there is no far right party in Ireland. On the other hand, countries that have not experienced the worst of the crisis and generally have lower levels of unemployment, such as Britain, France, and Denmark, are experiencing a rise in far right party support.  

The problem with this explanation is therefore that it is not consistent with patterns of far right party performance across Europe. This is because it is missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: welfare state policies mitigating the risks and costs that an economic crisis imposes on individuals. Ironically, it seems that welfare cuts, employed to tackle Europe’s economic crisis, are to blame for a broader political crisis, where the far right is flourishing.

In other words, austerity breeds right-wing extremism and this why: The link between an economic crisis and far right support is the labour market insecurity experienced by the middle class. When a crisis hits, those who have a job fear that they will lose it. Those who don’t have a job (or those who do lose it) fear that they will have no safety net or alternative means of subsistence. The greater the risks and costs of unemployment arising from the crisis the greater the insecurity. And in turn, the greater the insecurity, the greater the likelihood for people to punish the mainstream and reward far right parties.

One reason is that these parties pledge to limit foreigners’ access to jobs, thus appearing to be responding to increasing insecurity.  Another is that these parties’ authoritarian vision of order is appealing in a context where economic malaise is having a disorderly effect on people’s lives.  Finally, far right populist rhetoric is appealing because mainstream parties take the bulk of the blame both for the crisis itself and for inadequate policy responses to it.

The welfare state, therefore, is the key to understanding the rise of the far right as well as its varied performance across Europe: The extent of insecurity that people experience as a result of the crisis is largely determined by how protective welfare state institutions are. People fear losing their jobs less when job dismissal regulations protect them from redundancy. And those who do lose their jobs suffer less from this loss when unemployment benefits are more generous. A rise in unemployment, therefore, is morel likely to lead to far right party support when job dismissal regulations are low and unemployment benefits not generous.

This helps explain what happened in Spain and Portugal where unemployment has increased but the far right has not emerged. Both countries have high unemployment benefit replacement rates, and job dismissal regulations for those in permanent contracts are also comparatively high. By contrast, Greece and the UK, which have seen their far right party support increase, have much lower replacement rates. The UK also has one of the lowest employment protection legislations in Western Europe.

Welfare state policies are the link between economic crisis, unemployment and far right party support. Welfare cuts have increased the insecurity of the European middle classes that are being hit by the economic crisis. This matters because of the implications it has for policy. By reversing austerity, which results in welfare cuts and increases insecurity, we can limit the appeal of right-wing extremism. 

This piece is co-authored with Daphne Halikiopoulou. Daphne Halikiopoulou is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at University of Reading. Tim Vlandas is Lecturer of Politics at University of Reading.  This piece builds on their argument in their co-authored piece Risks, Costs and Labour Markets: Explaining Far Right-Wing Party Success in European Parliament Elections forthcoming in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

01 June 2015

Changing welfare states in the post-crisis period

The OECD has published its latest social expenditure update covering 2014. It’s a very interesting small report well worth reading. Here are 8 points that caught my eye in the latest data which I organise in three themes: surprising changes in ranking, the articulation of short term and long term dynamics and the importance of paying attention to the allocation and composition of social spending, not just the aggregate spending. 

Surprising changes in ranking (Figure 1)

1. Scandinavian countries are no longer always the top social spenders. In 2014, France (1st) spent more than Finland (2nd), Belgium (3rd) more than Denmark (4th), Italy (5th) and Austria (6th) more than Sweden (7th). For a very long time, Scandinavia had much large welfare states than other countries, which was attributed to particularly strong left wing parties and unions, as well as production models that required such a welfare state. This seems to be changing (though see point 5 below). 

2. Spain (8th) and Italy (5th) now spend more on social expenditures than Germany (8th), while Portugal (9th) spends more than the Netherlands (10th). But they do so in a way which is particularly inegalitarian (see point 6 below) and inefficient (consistent with older research by, among others, Andre Sapir). 

Diversity in short term changes, but in the long run social spending increases 

3. The biggest absolute increase in social spending since 2007 can be seen in Finland, Spain, Belgium, Japan and Ireland. Nine countries have managed to reduce spending below their post-2007 peak: Sweden, Greece, Hungary, UK, Ireland, Canada, Iceland, Estonia and Chile (Figure 1). 

4. Every decade since the 1960s has seen an increase in the OECD’s average public social expenditures. This average hides an important difference between the US and the EU which start diverging in the mid-1970s. By 2012, the OECD average spending has stabilised around 22%, EU21 around 25%, US under 20%, while Japan spends more than the OECD average for the first time (Figure 2). 

It’s not what you spend, it’s how you spend it 

5. But Scandinavia does continue to spend much more on all social services (excluding health), whereas pension commitments are much larger in continental European countries than Scandinavia (Figure 4). And indeed the challenge for most welfare states is going to be to foster efficiency and equality in a context where health and pensions are absorbing an ever rising amount of resources. 

6. What characterises southern Europe is not high social spending, it’s a high percentage of spending targeted at the better off (highest income quintile) and very little targeted at the poor (the bottom quintile). Scandinavia and liberal countries do well in terms of targeting spending toward bottom quintile (Figure 5). 

 7. Liberal countries (Australia, Canada, US, UK, New Zealand) are the biggest ‘means testers’: They have among the highest share of cash benefits with eligibility and entitlements requirements that are conditional on the recipient's current income and assets (Figure 6). While it means they do not fare badly in terms of targeting spending to the bottom quintile (point 6), reducing universality of benefits undermines public support for generous benefits, hence the low social spending figures. Countries must strike a balance between allocating sufficient amounts to the bottom quintile to promote effectiveness of spending in reducing poverty and inequality, and distributing parts of spending to other income quintiles to ensure legitimacy.

 8. We should not confuse what countries spend overall and the public-private distribution of that social spending. So far I’ve only discussed gross public spending: when looking at net social spending (i.e. including private social spending and effect of tax), the US comes out second (from 23rd) after France! UK jumps from 15th to 5th, Japan from 14th to 7th and Netherlands from 13th to 6th. Others fall in ranking: Sweden from 7th to 11th, Italy from 6th to 8th, and Spain from 8th to 10th position (2011 figures, Figure 7). The combined drive by governments such as the UK to reduce public social spending and privatise parts of the provision may mean they end up in the worst of both worlds: spending as much as before, but with a higher share going through an often less efficient (for the case of health care) and less egalitarian provider.

25 May 2015

The conservative victory and the welfare state: Here comes the pain

The Conservatives have won an unexpected majority. Now must come the cuts. Even Ian Duncan Smith is worried about the scale of the cuts promised. In this post I review the good, the bad, the ugly and unknown proposals that the conservatives have in stock for the welfare state. It’s an open question which ones they end up implementing and more crucially where they impose the pain of the non-specified cuts they promised in their manifesto.

The good

There may be some attempts to raise the purchasing power of low income workers. They want to raise the threshold beyond which workers start paying income tax to 12,500£. But whether this will on the net make low income workers better off depends crucially on where they cut welfare state spending further (see below). A downside is of course that this further erodes the government’s tax raising capacity. On minimum wages, they declared they would follow the recommendations from the Low Pay Commission to raise minimum wage to over $8 by the end of 2020. Again whether this will actually represent an improvement depends on the inflation rate over the next five years.

In addition to these uncertain improvements to the conditions of low income workers are two big spending promises. The first one concerns giving working parents 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 years old, which they estimate will cost about £350 million. The second one is to protect the NHS by keeping it free at the point of use and increasing the NHS funding by an additional £8 billion by 2020. For the latter increase in spending to make the NHS sustainable will require additional ‘efficiency savings’ of 2% to 3% a year which are likely to be very difficult to achieve. So in all likelihood, the Conservatives will have to choose between a deterioration of quality or allocating extra spending.

Finally, two ambiguously positive proposals. First, they have promised that they would introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses. This will not resolve much of the issues of university funding and access to undergraduate degrees, but fills a gap for postgraduate studies where access was hampered. Second, the benefit cap, which I discuss below in more detail, will not include the Disability Living Allowance.

The bad

In a context of austerity, the Conservatives are wasting tax revenues on the better off while cutting benefits on the worst off. This makes no economic sense and will likely depress the economy given the different marginal propensity to consume of different income groups: the poor will reduce their spending in response to lower benefits more than the rich will increase their spending in reactions to lower taxes. The net effect on aggregate demand, even in the absence of additional consolidation, will be negative.

Regarding benefits, they will freeze working age benefits for two years from April 2016 (except for maternity allowance, statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay, statutory adoption pay and statutory sick pay). Two groups are specifically targeted. First, EU immigrants: they plan to further restrict benefits (housing, JSA, etc) to EU jobseekers in the first four years. This may be consistent with EU law as long as the restriction applies to non-contributory benefits. However, studies have shown that immigrants bring more revenues than they cost so there seems to be little reasons to limit benefits on economic grounds. Second, 18-21 years old will be eligible to a less generous ‘Youth Allowance’ limited to six months and will also have less access to housing benefits.

The ugly

The three most problematicc proposals are the benefit cap, the undercutting of strikes and promotion of precarious contracts and sanctions for addicts. With respect to the first, they will lower the current benefit cap on the benefits that households can receive to £23,000 (from £26,000). In practice this will only hurt families that need it the most such as those with many children or those paying high rents.

Next, they want to rely on precarious contracts to break strikes by repealing the “nonsensical restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes”. This fundamentally undermines the right to strike as precarious contracts are likely less costly than the workers that are striking. Since those who strike are not being paid by their employers, strikes will no longer have any impact on employers.

Finally, those who refuse the “medical help they need” will see their benefits reduced. This concern both those addicted to drugs and the clinically obese. Assuming that at least some of these recipients would change their behaviour in response to the change, this still implies that some very vulnerable recipients that are not able to change their behaviour will lose benefits.

The known unknowns

Given that they have promised to protect Schools and international development, and that they will be spending more on the NHS and childcare, unspecified cuts are going to be large. In total the IFS estimates that they will have to cut £22.5 billion from departmental spending in ‘unprotected’ areas including defence, law and order, social care, and others. How much of this will be frontloaded in the first couple of years remains to be seen, but this will no doubt necessitate very drastic cuts.

In a post-crisis context where there is a heightened need for the welfare state there are very few policy domains that be cut without imposing significant hardships. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the many new challenges related to ageing and changing labour market structures would also require more rather than less welfare state spending.

29 March 2015

Curbing immigrants' benefits is a bad idea

The recent 'debate that was not' between Ed Miliband and David Cameron was depressing because both now seem to embrace the fantasy that curbing benefits to immigrants would be helpful. This was already an idea that David Cameron had proposed in a speech not long ago and that I had written about. This is what I had written at the time and I think it still applies.


Saddened by the rise of immigration above ‘the tens of thousands’ promised, Cameron has proposed new curbs on EU immigrants’ access to UK benefits. This proposal is unlikely to be feasible given current EU legislation. Because it is based on a flawed assessment of the problem, this proposal is also unlikely to have any effect on EU immigration and will probably make things worse.

What’s the problem?
According to the Office for national statistics, net migration – the difference between those leaving (323,000) and those entering (583,000) the country – was 260,000. One often throws this number around in the hope that it will sound big. However, common sense suggests otherwise. Indeed, this represents 0.36% of the total population of the UK (64 million). Yes, 0.36% and you are meant to believe this is a major problem facing the country today. Indeed Cameron criticises the “complacent view that says the levels of immigration we’ve seen in the past decade aren’t really a problem at all”.

But the truly amazing thing is that not even half of those entering the UK are EU citizens: of the 583,000 entering the country, only 228,000 came from other EU countries in the year ending June 2014. And about 20% of EU immigrants came to study. Compare this with the latest number of births (812,970) and deaths (569,024) in the UK. Or think about the fact that we still have 1.96 million people seeking work (only 0.93 million receiving job seeker’s allowance) and 9 million not in the labour force (i.e. those between 16 and 64 either not seeking or not available to work).

The proposed solution
Despite no evidence that the bulk of immigration is driven by benefits, Cameron proposes two measures that are entirely based on this assumption:
  • He first suggestsEU migrants should have a job offer before they come here” but then contends that “UK taxpayers will not support them if they don’t”, which begs the question: how could UK taxpayers support them if they are not allowed to come here in the first place without having a job offer? Never mind that people also pay taxes when they consume goods and services.
  • Second, he proposed introducing a two-tier system where “once they are in work, they [EU citizens] won’t get benefits or social housing from Britain unless they have been here for at least four years.” It’s totally unclear of course how this is supposed to influence EU immigration into the country. It’s also grossly unfair since it will – arbitrarily – prevent people who are contributing to government revenues to claim certain benefits.

Why it doesn’t make sense
The first issue with the proposed reform is a misreading of what’s driving EU immigrants’ to come to the UK. Cameron argues that the “generous welfare system, including for those in work – makes the UK a magnetic destination for workers from other European countries”. But many of the benefits are in fact not more generous than in many other EU countries. And migrants are less likely to claim benefits than natives.

In fact, immigrants that are from Central and Eastern European countries are 60% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits and 58% less likely to live in social housing. In 2011, across all benefits given by Department of Work and Pensions, 6.4% were non-UK nationals and only a quarter of those were from within the European Union. Ironically, Cameron himself concedes as much: “And let me be clear: the great majority of those who come here from Europe come to work, work hard and pay their taxes.” If the majority of immigrants come to work – and they do – restricting benefits would at best alter the immigration decisions of very few people.

Second, the reform is unnecessary. Indeed, as Cameron himself argues the surge in EU immigration is temporary and driven by the economic downturn in other EU countries: “And once economic growth returns to the countries of the Eurozone, and those economies start to grow and prosper, the economic pendulum will start to swing back.” If the problem is a temporary downturn in other EU economies, a permanent curb on EU immigrants’ benefits is unlikely to solve it.

Third, the reform would make matters worse. Cameron boasts that “So as Universal Credit is introduced we will pass a new law that means EU jobseekers will not be able to claim it. […] So instead of £600, they will get nothing.” But if the concern over immigration, as is frequently voiced, is that it puts pressure on the employment conditions and wages of workers in certain occupations, then making EU immigrants non-eligible to benefits will increase rather than decrease the pressure that takes place.

Indeed, faced with literally no safety net, EU immigrants would be forced to accept any work at any wages. Current evidence in any case suggests that immigration has at worst a mixed impact on native workers – beneficial for some workers and detrimental to others. Immigration also entails a clearly beneficial effect on the net fiscal position of the government. Thus, if successful in preventing immigration the reform would paradoxically lead to a worsening of public finances.

Last but not least, to the extent that a high and localised influx of immigrants does indeed put pressure on public services, reducing the overall number of those who come in the foreseeable future, while deteriorating EU immigrants’ social protection, does nothing to alleviate the pressure that has already accumulated. Pressure on public services is an allocation problem: immigration and indeed the general population concentrate in certain parts of the UK territory.

The solution is therefore twofold. First, making other parts of the UK more economically attractive would distribute population more evenly across the UK.The UK does not have an usustainable population growth: it had the 152nd highest rate of population growth of the world. Its net migration rate per 1,000 persons is lower than in Ireland, Cyprus, Norway, Spain, Australia, Canada, Sweden,Switzerland, Italy, and Portugal. The UK population density – people per square Km – did increase from 230 in 1981 to 255 in 2009 (table 6). But compare this to density in London: 4,932 people per square kilometre in 2009 (page 20).

Second, we should invest in the public services that are under pressure. To the extent that EU immigrants have a positive net fiscal effect, they should facilitate such an investment. Some may argue that it is EU immigration that puts pressure on these services. However, given net economic gains of immigration the solution should not be to reduce immigration but rather to use the extra tax revenues that EU workers generate to invest in pressurised locations.

An EU version of this solution could also be pushed by this government: to create an ‘EU immigration compensation fund’ that helps local communities cope with the pressures that large influx of immigrants may generate. In a context where the EU is associated with austerity, thereby fuelling extremism, this fund would improve public services where it is most needed while addressing EU citizens’ legitimate concerns over immigration.