Background

The last three years will go down in the history books as years of global crisis. The financial crisis, also known as the credit crunch, had and still has, a huge impact on economies throughout the world and, particularly, in Europe. Writing at the end of 2011, the impact of the lasting financial crisis in Europe only now becomes clearly visible; in budget cuts on public services, in unemployment rates and in wider social impacts. These effects lead, or might lead in the near future, to more severe and new forms of social exclusion on different levels and to greater differences between European countries: within countries regarding vulnerable groups (elderly, minorities, youth, handicapped, migrants, unemployed and so forth and so on); on a regional or European scale (economic migration, refugees, asylum seekers); between the countries of the EU (think of the position of Greece, the North-South division within Europe, the position of the Euro-zone countries); and in the relation between the EU and its neighbours and other parts of the world. Given the interwoven character of our economies and (public) policies, and given the interdependency in the relations between our countries, these forms of social exclusion cross borders and have a European dimension. These are the challenges of Europe which are influenced by Europe or by developments in Europe.

In trying to find answers to cross-border problems, it is not sufficient to address problems on national scale. Other countries and the EU play an important role, whether we like it or not. But the EU is not a federation of nation states with equal competences as a sovereign state and consequently does not have enough force to intervene in European societies using its limited hard (coercive) power only. Therefore, the EU searches for other ways to control societies, based on soft power, which could be defined as the power to do obtain the outcomes someone wants by attraction and persuasion (Nye, 1990; in Foreign Policy, No. 80, pp. 153-171).

The current crisis shows that, due to the political climate in national governments, new European policy is mainly made at an intergovernmental rather than at a supranational level. The EU seems effectively a coalition of representatives of (the citizens of) the sovereign member states, resulting in a decision making process through negotiation and compromises. Powerless, or? The EU has proven before to be capable of addressing problems on different levels by making use of soft power. Thus, what can be done, on a European level, of the new forms of social exclusion, given the fact that an intergovernmental EU has limited coercive powers and has to rely on the soft power of negotiation and compromises?

When considering the role of the EU now, it is already using forms of soft power on different levels. As the EU wants to maintain stability and welfare, while balancing between processes of unification and diversification, the EU is for instance responsible for setting up minimal institutions for vulnerable groups within its member states through directives, the Europe 2020 strategy, and the Open Method of Coordination on socio-economic policy areas.

So, during the course three questions are addressed: what new forms of social exclusion do we see developing on different levels caused by the effects of the global crisis? Can we identify the European dimension of these forms of exclusion? And what can be done on a European level, given the fact that an intergovernmental EU has limited coercive powers and has to rely on the soft power of negotiation and compromise? These questions are approached from different academic disciplines and from both an analytical perspective as well as a perspective on possible interventions and governance. They are at the heart of the 2012 edition of the course Inclusion and Exclusion in Contemporary European Societies and can be captured in the central theme of this edition: Challenges of Europe: the Strength of Soft Power.