The EU’s social policy differs in many respects from conventional definitions of (national) social policy, being principally regulatory and to a significant extent governed through soft-law mechanisms, whereas the power to decide upon distribution schemes remains at the member state level. Over the first decades of the European Communities’ existence, decision-making power on almost any aspect of social policy remained firmly in member state government hands. Nevertheless, the Communities’ social dimension expanded significantly already in the 1950s to 1980s, notably through different soft-law mechanisms such as action programmes and recommendations, and through the supranational activism of, amongst others, the Commission, the European Court of Justice, and the European Parliament.

This research project studies the emergence of a European social dimension from a sociological institutionalist approach, with a special focus on the ideas influencing actors’ behaviour: the area of social policy provided a stronger ideational dimension than any other Community policy area at the time. Through the promotion of European social policy measures, especially (but not only) the Communities’ supranational institutions sought to present European integration as a project with a palpable positive impact on people’s lives. They hoped thus to increase public support for closer European integration (as well as their own related political actions), and to convince the member states’ citizens that the Communities were more than a mere technocratic, market-oriented construct.