Where are labour market policies going in the aftermath of the EU economic crisis? Is flexicurity a myth?

The flexicurity welfare state model experienced a boost in the aftermath of the economic crisis that interested EU in the last years. The term flexicurity derives from the merge of the two words “flexibility” and “security”. The idea behind this concept is to guarantee workers with job security in the framework of a flexible labour market. This policy, introduced for the first time in the 1990s by the Prime Minister of Denmark, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, became immediately a model for Northern European economies. The success observed in the Danish, as well as in the Dutch labour market, attracted the attention of other EU countries. According to OECD data, Denmark’s unemployment rate was around 3.43%, reaching the lowest level in over 30 years. In the same year, the unemployment rate was around 7,53% in Germany, 7,06% in France and 6,72% in Italy. Flexicurity is not, however, so easy to replicate in other systems.

In 2007, the European Union integrated flexicurity in the objectives of the renewed Lisbon Strategy. The European Commission defines flexicurity as “an integrated strategy for enhancing, at the same time, flexibility and security in the labour market”. In collaboration with national governments, the Commission identified four components based on which policy actions should be carried out, namely: 1) flexible and reliable contractual arrangements; 2) comprehensive lifelong learning strategies; 3) effective active labour market policies and 4) modern social security systems. In order to be effective, flexicurity needs to take into account national and regional specificities. Thus, it does not propose a single model, rather a set of common principles that would enable a Member State to tailor its arrangements. Creating more and better jobs, offering comprehensive lifelong learning strategies, securing transitions from job to job, facilitating mobility between unemployment or inactivity and work are only some of these principles (Council of the EU, 2007). As designed, flexicurity is a win-win policy, benefitting both parties in an employment relationship.

In addition, the European Commission has launched a “Mission for Flexicurity” aimed at raising awareness and implementing flexicurity at national level. Made up of 7 members, the Mission was conducted in 5 different countries which had voluntarily agreed to it, namely Finland, France, Spain, Sweden and Poland (European Commission, 2008a). The Mission pointed out the crucial importance represented by the collaboration of social partners and non-governmental associations: this social dialogue is absolutely essential, particularly where economic restructuring measures have a serious impact on employment. In such cases, it is important to anticipate and prevent job losses by facilitating skills improvement. This point was deeply analysed by the Mission, especially during its visit in Finland, where it highlighted the role of trainings and public employment services in managing careers transitions.

Another example is represented by the visit of the Mission to France on May 2008. In such occasion, the Mission urged the need to merge the National Employment Agency (ANPE) with the Assédic, the Association for Employment in Industry and Trade, in order to simplify the system and to offer a better service. Since December 2008, the new Pôle Emploi, employment centre, provides advice and support to job seekers in a more efficient way (European Commission, 2008b).

Flexicurity became an essential element of the Europe 2020 Strategy, launched by the European Commission in 2010 in order to face European unemployment that was around 10% of active population (23 million people were unemployed). “The Agenda for new Skills and Jobs” sets two main goals for EU countries: having the 75% of the working age population (20-64 years) employed and encouraging economic growth through more jobs and a better skilled workforce (European Commission, 2010).  In particular, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, flexicurity seems to be the answer for countries as Italy and France that are experiencing very high unemployment rates. The European Commission, through country-specific recommendations, strongly encouraged these countries to make their labour system more active and flexible. However, the task is not so easy.

In fact, even if the Jobs Act, introduced by the Renzi Government in Italy in 2015, deeply reformed the Italian labour market in this direction some steps still need to be done. Since 2014, according to the OECD, the unemployment in the country decreased by more than one percentage point (from 12,7% to 11,3%). However, the rate still remains one of the highest within the EU, just after Greece, Spain and Portugal. The Commission (2016) recognizes that some progresses have been done, stating that “implementing the reform of active labour market policies is key to activating those further away from the labour market, in particular the long-term unemployed and young people”. Other crucial issues were, although, not addressed in an effective way by the Jobs Act. This is the case, for example, of the female employment which is one of the lowest in Europe. In fact, among the flexicurity principles, the Council (2007) clearly stated that it “should support gender equality, by promoting equal access to quality employment for women and men and offering measures to reconcile work, family and private life”.

A new reform programme is, thus, expected to be proposed at the end of 2016. The next actions that the Commission (2016) recommended are to “[i]mplement the reform of active labour market policies, in particular by strengthening the effectiveness of employment services. Facilitate the take-up of work for second earners. Adopt and implement the national anti-poverty strategy and review and rationalise social spending”.

In France, on the other hand, the unemployment rate has been more or less stable since 2012 at 10%, ranking 5th among the European countries. The Labour Law reform (Loi Travail), proposed in February 2016 by Valls Government in order to make the labour market more flexible, was not accepted peacefully by civil society. The Commission highlighted the importance of this reform underlying how “[t]he structure of the labour market is increasingly polarised, with highly educated workers hired on open-ended contracts and a constant proportion of low-skilled jobs becoming more and more precarious”. However, since it was proposed, the fierce protests that have been spreading all around the country could make the government reconsider its strategy.

As mentioned above, the flexicurity system is not easy to replicate in other countries due to the peculiarities that each country has. Also in Denmark, where flexicurity had a major success, it was not possible to keep the same figures in the long term. The country unemployment peaked, in fact, at 7,95% in 2012, against the 4,29% one registered at the beginning of the century. Is thus flexicurity merely a utopian model?

Federica Sola

Master’s Degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)


Council of the European Union (2007), Towards Common Principles of Flexicurity – Draft Council Conclusions, 23 November 2007, http://register.consilium.europa.eu/doc/srv?l=EN&f=ST%2015497%202007%20INIT.

European Commission (2008a), EU sets up mission for flexicurity, 01 February 2008, press released available at http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=89&langId=en&newsId=88&furtherNews=yes.

European Commission (2008b), EU Mission for Flexicurity visits France, 19 May 2008,   http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=88&langId=en&eventsId=94&furtherEvents=yes.

European Commission (2010), Agenda for new skills and jobs: EU sets out actions to boost employability and drive reform, 23 November 2010, available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-10-1541_en.htm?locale=en.

European Commission (2016), Recommendation for a Council Recommendation on the 2016 national reform programme of Italy and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 stability programme of Italy, 18 May 2016, available at http://ec.europa.eu/europe2020/pdf/csr2016/csr2016_italy_en.pdf

OECD Data, Unemployment rate in the European Union, graph available at https://data.oecd.org/unemp/unemployment-rate.htm.