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From austerity to permanent strain? The EU and welfare state reform in Italy and Spain


This article makes a comparative analysis of the trajectories of welfare change in Italy and Spain since the outbreak of the financial crisis. We look at the differences in the types of institutional design to study of welfare reform in these two countries and assess how recent changes have affected welfare state institutions. The article also assesses the level of EU involvement not only through formal instruments around the European Semester, but also by means of agreements with the Troika and the European Central Bank. For this part of the analysis three sets of documents have been used: Commission Recommendations and Council Decisions in relation to Excessive Deficit Procedures; Commission country-specific recommendations based on Stability or Convergence Programmes; and Policy Measures to boost growth and jobs (National Reform Programmes). These documents allow an analysis of the contents of formal adjustment pressures. Other documents and sources (including newspaper articles) have also been analysed in order to look at the role of conditionality and ‘backroom’ diplomacy.

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  1. The interpretation of welfare policy changes based on retrenchment has been deeply criticized by Pierson (2001). Analyzing British and the US government social spending trends, Pierson found that not only it did not decline, but instead it grew at a faster rate than the economy as a whole. Thereafter welfare state resilience has become a relevant but also a contested concept.

  2. Berlusconi’s weak position was the result of an increasing loss of legitimacy in the domestic arena because of scandals and the difficulties with his main ally in government, the Northern League, which was against a pension’s reform (de la Porte and Natali, 2014).

  3. In the two European Council meetings and in the summit of the heads of state and government of the Eurozone in the Autumn 2011, the EU institutions and various Governments (especially the French and German) insistently asked Italy to make further efforts in implementing structural reforms, expressing at the same time scepticism over Berlusconi’s capacity to deliver them.

  4. The data on public opinion were retrieved from the ‘Eurobarometer interactive search system’ on the European Commission web page.


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Correspondence to Emmanuele Pavolini.

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Pavolini, E., León, M., Guillén, A. et al. From austerity to permanent strain? The EU and welfare state reform in Italy and Spain. Comp Eur Polit 13, 56–76 (2015).

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