Why is there socio-economic inequality

European identity

Steffen Mau

To person

Dr. rer. pol., born 1968; Junior Professor for Social Policy at the Graduate School of Social Sciences (GSSS) at the University of Bremen.
Address: GSSS, University of Bremen, PF 330440, 28334 Bremen.
Email: [email protected]

Publications include: Welfare Regimes and the Norms of Social Exchanges, in: Current Sociology, 52 (2004) 1; Transnational transfers in EU regional policy. The institutional solution to a distribution policy problem, in: Stefan Liebig / Holger Lengfeld / Steffen Mau (eds.), Justice and distribution problems in modern societies, Frankfurt / M.-New York 2004.

What are the socio-economic inequalities in the European Union? What effects can they have on the integration process within the EU?


The European Union is one of the islands of prosperity in a globalizing world. Its member countries are among the privileged places in the world both in terms of economic indicators such as gross national product and in terms of social living conditions such as health care, housing, life expectancy and access to education. Nevertheless, the EU is not a homogeneous entity, but rather marked by considerable inequalities between its member countries and regions. These are of particular relevance because the European Union's efforts to integrate can only succeed if there is a sufficient degree of coherence. For example, the then EU Commissioner Michel Barnier announced the third report on economic and social cohesion within the EU, published in February 2004, with the following words: "Narrowing the disparities in order to accelerate growth. Growth and cohesion are two sides the same medal ... We are on the threshold of a historic moment, the reunification of the continent, which will widen the gap between rich and poor. The primary goal of the next generation of European programs will be to support the poorest regions ."[1]

The role of social inequality for the integration process has not been adequately addressed and addressed by inequality research until today. The reason for this is the still prevailing focus on domestic inequalities. The central concepts of sociology of inequality such as class, class and social situation, as well as established measures of inequality, relate to social differences within nation states. When different countries are considered, they are compared side by side, but the question is rarely asked what interactions there are between their structures of inequality. However, comparative research has successfully contributed to the fact that good comparative indicators are now available for most countries. There is now an extensive reporting system at the EU level as well. As far as inequality is discussed there, three central perspectives come into play. First, in line with the research already mentioned, a comparison of the member countries is made with regard to key indicators of inequality such as the poverty rate or income distribution. Second, in the course of the discussion about social convergence, the prosperity gap between the member states is addressed. Thirdly, the interregional comparison has established itself as an independent inequality perspective because the regions have been upgraded in the course of Europeanization. As political, but also socio-economic units of action, they are more important and have come into focus under the heading of "territorial disparities". The following is a brief inventory of inequalities in the European Union based on these perspectives. In addition to the pure description of these inequalities, it will also be discussed to what extent the Europeanization process itself - reinforcing or mitigating - has an effect on these inequalities. European unification has already progressed so far that it seems necessary to make more reference to factors of the constitution of inequality that arise from the merging of the European member states. The last part discusses why inequality research has clear innovation deficits with regard to Europeanization and in which direction conceptual reorientations are necessary.