An eco-social care contract for Europe


In the next term the EU can advance an eco-social future which values participation in care and enables access as a universal basic service.

eco-social,care,social contract
Quality public childcare is a key supportive policy, as for this group of professionally supervised children on an excursion in Stockholm (Alexanderstock23/shutterstock.com)

European elections are on the horizon in June. Elections and manifestoes are an important opportunity to promote language and ideas with capacity to frame our lives and our societies, and for institutional imagination. And social-democratic values can inform how the European Union can support diverse families, value care and advance gender equality.

Meantime, on International Women’s Day in Ireland there will be two highly relevant referenda: on recognising and supporting diverse families, and valuing care in women’s and men’s lives. Key to these is changing article 41.2 of the Irish constitution—following recommendations from a citizens’ assembly in 2021 and the Oireachtas (parliament) Committee on Gender Equality last year—to replace sexist 1937 text defining a woman’s life and duties in the home as her primary role with a gender-neutral valuing of, and support for, care.

While the government followed the drift of the recommendations, it failed with its proposed amendments to value care work in practical terms. Many progressives thus feel disinclined to endorse such weak and symbolic wording, but the referenda offer nonetheless powerful opportunities fundamentally to affirm gender-neutral care.

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A Europe that values care

Gendered care penalties stemming from historical and contemporary inequality leave many women across Europe experiencing the associated poverty, stress and unfulfilled potential. Not only is responsibility for care unequally allocated: 92 per cent of women within the EU are regular carers and 81 per cent daily carers, while this is true of only 68 and 48 per cent respectively of men, thereby restricted to one-dimensional lives. Care also lies at the heart of intersecting discriminations, as low-paid care work is shouldered by minoritised individuals.

Care-oriented societies are more equal and offer a bulwark against the erosion of democracy and social cohesion. Europe is however experiencing care, ageing and ecological crises. We are all undermined by society’s failure to support us to care for and care about each other and our collective world. We all need flexibility to be workers and carers—in Nancy Fraser’s words, we each need to be a ‘universal caregiver’. The elections are an opportunity to talk about a Europe that values care, making it easier for people to live the lives they value, while also advancing a sustainable eco-social future.


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Existing proposals from the European Parliament, the European Women’s Lobby and other organisations take us towards what might be called a Care Deal for Europe. The European Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy (2020-2025) engages with the gender stereotypes underlining inequalities built into national tax and benefit systems, sustaining the maldistribution of care. And the EU Work-Life Balance Directive sets minimum standards for member states addressing inequalities in care and work.

These proposals offer opportunities to deliver fair and inclusive care for all. However, they require imaginative policies to make them real.

Glimpse of the future

The pandemic offered us a glimpse of the dynamics of the large-scale ecological and social changes that will inform our future. We saw how gendered care was, how interdependent our lives were and how our future required long-term sustainability from an ecological and social perspective. We understood better why basic services ‘must be placed outside the laws of the market’. Various creative and innovative ideas have since been advanced, including calls for a new eco-social contract to balance better our economies, societies and environments and to enable us care better for our selves, each other and our planet. This is what daring to care means in its broadest sense.

The June elections offer an opportunity to focus debate on a European eco-social contract on care. Services and income supports are the two threads running through all ideas for social contracts. The aim should be to realign social security across Europe with patterns of participation which value essential work and sustain, rather than marginalise, activities of reproductive value. Income supports need to interact with services to enable people to live, work and care differently.

The EU can thus lead the way in supporting care and carers along the two avenues of universal basic services (UBS) and a participation income (PI). Both offer ways to support and value care work and can be linked during the elections to a slate of policies: public childcare and universal basic care, better-paid family leave (maternity/paternity and parents’ leave), universal pensions and, for disabled people, guaranteed access to personal assistance and supports to lead autonomous lives.

Reconfiguring the welfare state

UBS can be a primary conduit for reconfiguring the welfare state. Anna Coote and Andrew Percy argue that these can transform the way services are provided. UBS ensure equal access, distribute resources, set and enforce quality standards and co-ordinate services across areas of need, so that genuine wellbeing can be promoted, including social participation and care. The concept of UBS provides guiding principles, and an evidence-based rationale, for collective provision based on access to services as a right, with citizen participation, local control and diverse models of ownership.

This yields far better results than market transactions, in terms of equity, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability. Care services, across the spectrum of life, offer a vehicle to build UBS as a central component of an eco-social care contract. 

Direct income supports, many already in place—such as child benefit, lone parents’ and carers’ allowances—should be enhanced. But imagination is needed on welfare too and a PI would complement UBS. PI is essentially a ‘reciprocal’ basic income—and feminist principles of mutual interdependence and care ethics can inform a much richer understanding of reciprocity—paid to all citizens on a universal basis, to value their social participation and the contribution they make through care, environmental, community or democratic work (among other things) to socially valued outcomes.

The case for PI was first made by Tony Atkinson in the mid-1990s, as an alternative to means-tested, conditional, ‘workfare’-type payments. PI can support individuals to spend time in socially useful activities with reproductive value, such as giving care and sustaining the environment. It rebalances time poverty and respects personal autonomy to live the life each individual values, enabling practical shifts between work and income support and opening up time for care—for men as well as women.

Unlike universal basic income, PI is not neutral about the distribution of care. It recognises the importance of configuring welfare to value reproductive activity—an approach which aligns with some existing European social-assistance programmes—and would be a logical progression of EU social policy.

A specific care income (CI) could also be developed. A number of collaborations, proposals and strategies already use this language to describe ways to support care services and care work. There are different formulations for CI, taking in paid and unpaid work delivering care services or as a variant of universal basic income or PI. Whatever the nuances, these offer ‘hooks’ to frame a CI proposal at the centre of a European eco-social care contract, animating policy and institutional imagination at the heart of social Europe.

This is part of a series on a progressive ‘manifesto’ for the European Parliament elections


Mary Murphy is professor of sociology in Maynooth University (Dublin). She co-edited Policy Analysis in Ireland (Policy Press, 2021). She is a former member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and a current member of the Irish Council of State.

Pauline Cullen is associate professor in the Department of Sociology, Maynooth University.  She was research expert on public submissions to the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality in Ireland and co-edited Producing Knowledge, Reproducing Gender (University College Dublin Press, 2020).