The issue of inclusion in the new EU public policy framework [EN]

Over the past few years, we have gone through a major evolution in our political view of society and how it is organised. The social question is now seen through the prism of the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy. As we are confronted with new phenomena whereby isolated individuals are relegated and isolated, the concept of exclusion is being brought to the foreground and gradually taking over attempts to provide a sociological and political description of social realities.


Over the past few years, we have gone through a major evolution in our political view of society and how it is organised. The social question is now seen through the prism of the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy. As we are confronted with new phenomena whereby isolated individuals are relegated and isolated, the concept of exclusion is being brought to the foreground and gradually taking over attempts to provide a sociological and political description of social realities. Starting in the 1980s, scholars have been calling for a new ontology of social problems. The division of society into classes is no more, and it has been replaced by a patchwork of individual positions, affiliations to various groups, and economic, social, professional categories. The social question can therefore no longer be understood in terms of class exploitation, but should rather be considered in terms of social exclusion, a pathological process that desocializes individuals in economic, civic, cultural and spatial terms 1. Exclusion is seen as one facet of a more nuanced view of how to define an individual’s place in society, beyond economic reductionism, which can contribute to developing a new policy agenda. 

The requalification — whether actual or perceived — of social risks, which are becoming ‘life risks’ as a result of their increasingly individual nature 2, combined with the lower emphasis placed on exploitation in the public discourse, naturally results in the adoption of a new perspective in which the inability to create an integrated society stems from a ‘subjective’ failure of solidarity processes 3.

Inclusion is defined in contrast to this concept of exclusion, as its pure semantic opposite. However, the concept of inclusion does not have an agreed-upon definition, with many scholars pointing out inconsistencies or vagueness in how the term is defined 4. So, what is the contribution of this perspective to actual policy-making ? What are the socio-economic implications of this shift in the public policy framework? Works in cognitive sociology on public policy have shown how adopting a new framework as a strong reaction to putative social conditions offered specific cognitive and normative resources for policy-making 5. How can the introduction of a conceptual dichotomy between inclusion and exclusion provide a framework for the interpretation of society? How does this framework restrict and guide policy-making? In this essay, we will take a brief look at how social action can be thematised through the prism of inclusion at the EU level, in order to identify symbolic and concrete frameworks that determine the form, content and implementation of social policies.

Inclusion according to the European Commission

The first place where inclusion is thematised at an institutional level is the EU, which has a structuring influence as one of the main sources of funding for inclusion policies. With an increasing integration at the EU level, characterised by an ideological convergence and concrete limitations 6, we tend to consider this level as an essential one in the cognitive structuring of public policies even at a local scale, which chose — or had to choose? — the inclusion framework.

The term’s first appearance in EU texts was in the Lisbon strategy 7, in 2000, and the topic has always been approached from an economic point of view. This first step was the beginning of a EU process intended to coordinate initiatives against poverty and exclusion, and the introduction into the language of EU social policy of a concept that would then become increasingly important 8. In 2010, the Commission establishes the term in its general work programme, defining the EU’s post-crisis strategy for the following decade: economic growth must be green, smart, and inclusive 9. Social inclusion is integrated into the policy agenda of the EU and, by extension, of each member state. Still, definitions of the term are rarely provided. One of the few extensive definitions, outside of indicator descriptions, can be found in COM (2003) 773:

Economicism and individualism 

As these policies attempted to focus on social exclusion in order to develop a multidimensional and complex perspective of the processes involved in desocialization, it appears though that they have been unable to avoid being too reductive. The development of indicators is a good proof of this trend towards simplification: inclusion is essentially defined in terms of contribution to productive processes and of consumption capacity 10

Inclusion is defined as a process through which people overcome exclusion, and the indicator used to measure it is the rate of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This indicator is based on a combination of three sub-indicators, all of which are strongly linked to the economic aspects of social life. The first sub-indicator is the risk of poverty, with the poverty line defined as 60% of a country’s median income. The second measures the percentage of households with low work intensity, i.e. where fewer than 20% of working-age household members have worked during the year. Finally, the third sub-indicator measures material deprivation and is based on nine items : a situation of severe material deprivation occurs when people have access to fewer than six of these items 11. While the indicators used are not just economic in nature, they remain tied to material aspects of life and, as such, cannot be used to measure cultural participation — except by measuring who owns a television set —, social participation — except by measuring who has access to a telephone — or civic participation — except by measuring employment. 

The way in which these indicators are designed strongly implies that a specific lifestyle is being promoted. Thus, there is a risk that policies intended to fight exclusion might have an unintended yet central normalising component. Inclusion simply means following this ‘normal’ lifestyle, which is essentially focused on consumption. Those who are seen as excluded, and who therefore should be included, are those who deviate from this standard where consumption and a focus on material goods are the standard 12. In this sense, it is worth noting that the issue of social exclusion could be solved — by the Commission’s definition, that is, and according to the goal of reducing the number of people in poverty or social exclusion by 20 million — simply by providing a few million households with televisions or washing machines. This caricature is not meant as a genuine argument, but it does highlight the deeply restrictive nature of the EU’s perspective on social exclusion and, therefore, inclusion.

It should be noted, however, that alongside this main indicator, the Commission has added a limited series of indicators related to education. In the more comprehensive list of thirteen inclusion indicators, three are related to illiteracy, school leaving, and poor educational performance. While these are not directly tied to economic participation, a relationship still exists: the ability to read is not seen as an obstacle to citizenhood as it is a major obstacle to being a productive worker. Again, the end goal is the same: what matters is inclusion in the economic sphere, based on production and consumption, which takes over the entire social question. As a result, most policies intended to reduce social exclusion are approached through the angle of job creation, which is especially visible in strategic documents published by the EU 13. In this perspective, the fight against exclusion and poverty is always reduced to productive aspects 14. In theory, of course, the concept of inclusion covers more than just an economic perspective — relevant texts also refer to cultural and social aspects —, but an analysis of the issue reveals the central role of economic participation in how inclusion is thematised at the EU level. 

The emphasis placed on the concept of social investment confirms this tendency, and demonstrates the EU policies’ focus on individual abilities. The Commission defines social investment as a series of measures seeking to ‘strengthen people’s current and future capacities, and improve their opportunities to participate in society and the labour market’15. Upon closer scrutiny, it seems that the term actually covers all operations aimed at empowering and enabling individuals so that they can join the productive sphere, with consequences on policies: ‘[^s]ocial investment helps people to adapt to societal challenges’16. By looking at the European Social Fund (ESF), for instance, which is the EU’s first structural fund and the one that is closest to social inclusion policies, we realise that two types of policy are considered: one provides direct assistance to people, and the other targets systems and structures 17. A closer analysis of the details of the ESF’s significant investments reveals that most policies deal with helping individuals in order to enable them and improve the employability of excluded people. Measures supported by the ESF, which are intended as responses to the specific needs of excluded people, consist in little more than coaching, training, or personal growth activities, always with an emphasis on entering the labour market, which is seen as the main vector for people’s inclusion.

What does this mean for cities?

In 2016, under the Dutch presidency, during an informal meeting of EU ministers in charge of urban issues, the European Council made a commitment to adjust the cross-cutting objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy to urban policies. This adjustment was requested by the European Parliament, as this process is essential 18. The meeting resulted in the ‘Pact of Amsterdam’19, providing guidelines for the EU’s urban agenda. This document reaffirms the priorities defined in the European strategy, applying the three key words ‘green, smart, inclusive’ to urban policies. Based on a proposal by the European Parliament, who intends to make urban policy one of its central tools, a European urban agenda must be perfectly aligned with the EU’s overall strategy and objectives, and in particular with the Europe 2020 strategy 20.

In this context, once again, social inclusion is primarily considered from an economic perspective, the goal being to allow people living in poverty or exclusion to live with dignity and play an active role in society: urban development policies often use workers as a point of reference, rather than citizens or simply residents. Kerstin Westphal, explains the need for adequate urban equipment, in a rather striking way: ‘lack of appropriate infrastructure can cause psychological pressure and stress on workers’21. So is urban planning mostly intended for workers? In any case, the EU’s urban policy agenda does not look beyond an economic perspective. 

The ERDF’s interface: a territorialised European policy

The urban dimension of the EU’s social inclusion policies will be implemented by several tools, including the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The ERDF provides funding for projects that contribute to the development of a territorial policy for economic, social and environmental cohesion.

Along with the ESF and the EAFRD 22, the ERDF is the third financial resource for inclusion policies. This institutional position is not insignificant, as the requirements for funding results in most ERDF funds going to projects that focus on topics that are not tackled by the ESF, which is the main fund used for inclusion policies. This means the ERDF relies on a perhaps broader thematisation of the concepts of inclusion and exclusion, moving beyond the reductionist view of exclusion as poverty as adopted by the ESF: political and cultural aspects are therefore more the remit of the ERDF. 

For the second programming period, covering the 2014-2020 period, the Brussels-Capital region received 200 million euro for a call for proposals involving specific policy orientations, which are described and developed in the ERDF’s operational programme (OP) for the Brussels-Capital Region 23. The terms of the funding involved a delegation of public intervention to the associative, parastatal, and private sectors; in this context, the authorities’ role is limited to funding, i.e. selecting projects and assessing them once they have been implemented. Forty-six projects were selected based on the criteria of ‘reinforcement of the region’s economic, social and territorial cohesion’24, building on the EU’s cohesion policy, the Europe 2020 strategy. The projects were divided into four categories:

  1. Promoting research and innovation
  2. Promoting entrepreneurship and creating SMEs in high-growth industry
  3. Promoting circular economy and resource efficiency
  4. Improving the living conditions of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and populations

Social inclusion falls into the latter category, with eleven projects selected in the Brussels-Capital Region seeking to include people who find themselves excluded 25. This category of spending received 15% of the total funds allocated to the Brussels-Capital Region, and its overall purpose was to reduce social, economic and environmental inequalities by improving living conditions for disadvantaged neighbourhoods and populations 26. The projects selected covered three kinds of concrete initiatives: child care, increased cultural activities in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and increased participation of residents to planning projects in their neighbourhood. These initiatives consist in making infrastructures, equipments and services available so as to reinforce individual abilities, provide social support for empowerment. This can involve making resources available to individuals, e.g. child care facilities — which are seen as a way to eliminate factors preventing women from working —, or launching cultural projects with potential to produce a ‘leverage effect’ 27. As these projects are influenced by the EU’s idea of inclusion, economics permeates the various approaches of social intervention and there is a constant underlying link between this type of urban development and the economic dimension. This strong presence of economics is also present in policy-making, as (one of) the main driver(s) of inclusion policies.

However, another perspective of inclusion appears in the OP, covering — though with a lower budget — increased participation of residents to the urban initiatives and projects in their neighborhood 28. Despite the lower priority given to such measures, their mere presence is extremely significant, as it reveals the appearance of an alternative conception of social inclusion: it is not only a means to an end, and it takes into account principles that build upon a different idea of social issues, involving a collaborative dimension. Still, despite these encouraging principles, none of the projects selected were based on this idea of inclusion: this means the funding body’s intention to promote collaborative initiatives was not followed. 

What public policies in favour of inclusion? 

We can offer three areas of reflection following out analysis: the quantitative and rational approach that emerge from this thematisation of inclusion; the reduction of social issues to mere economic terms and the disappearance of political considerations to the profit of pragmatic initiatives; and the development of a functional model of social inclusion. 

Measuring inclusion with numbers

The approach of inclusion seems to necessarily be very quantitative: when measuring social inclusion, studies tend to rely on objective measures’29. This is typical of the processes involved in developing indicators used to assess ERDF projects; the Fund has a very strong tendency to reduce factors to relatively superficial metrics. For instance, projects involving cultural improvement of neighbourhoods are assessed in the most quantifiable way possible, but also in a way that is very removed from the residents’ actual daily experiences: simply by counting the number of additional cultural institutions installed in the areas covered by the project. A finer analysis might involve the surface in square meters of additional cultural spaces 30.

This is a striking illustration of current public policies, which are characterised by a quantitative abstraction that is all the more concerning that the perspective of exclusion/inclusion was intended to move beyond economics when analysing poverty, by integrating it into a broader experiential and qualitative view of social marginalisation. Obviously, it is difficult to assess results using factors that are not objectively measurable, but it is nevertheless surprising that policies that are meant to promote social life are evaluated with no regard for people’s qualitative experiences. 

As we can see, the view of inclusion demonstrates a holistic rationality. Social life is seen as a binary issue with each individual being either ‘in’ or ‘out’. There is no room for medium-term approaches, or for semi-inclusion. This perspective is what leads to numbers-based measures and objectives. Additionally, mathematical rationality results in a technical approach where those who fulfil the criteria to be considered ‘in’ are full members of society. The kind of interventions developed based on this view simply seek to help people enter the spheres from which they are excluded: once this is achieved — meaning inclusion is a matter of access policy —, the people are included and a social goal has been reached. As a result, the only social policies that are promoted are purely technical ones, aiming to facilitate access, streamline mobility and limit obstacles.

Apoliticism and reduction

In terms of public policies, the opposite of technicity is politics; and the development of strictly technical interventions could end up obliterating any room for political orientations. Rather than political decisions, the approaches we have seen promote technical measures. Social belonging and participation are seen as problems in the mechanisms of society, which can be solved through local measures focused on specific problematic issues. Yet exclusion is a highly political topic, calling for more than a purely pragmatic response 31. Realistic responses to inclusion problems only tackle the effects of exclusion. Once these are solved, the problem of social exclusion appears to be over. In the current fight against exclusion, we are witnessing the emergence of public policies that only deal with situations that have already deteriorated. Focusing on exclusion means resigning oneself to trying to repair tears in the social fabric without taking into account the factors that cause the tears 32.

The objective defined by the Commission is that ‘people experiencing poverty and social exclusion [^should be] enabled to live in dignity and take an active part in society’33. This is a concerning approach, as it seems to consider the issue of social exclusion to be a result of the obstacles it creates. The problematic factor is the consequences of exclusion and poverty on social participation, which should be shared taking into account the unequal distribution of material, territorial, and symbolic resources, so that people who are experiencing poverty can play an active and dignified part in society instead of just no longer experiencing poverty.

According to the Commission’s objectives, the dignity that poorer people should have access to can be reduced to a handful of consumption and leisure practices: getting 20 million people out of social exclusion is simply a matter of money, employment and access to consumer goods. Our goal here is not to diminish the considerable importance of measures intended to provide excluded people access to jobs and consumption. Still, we believe that this reductive view of exclusion fails to take into account a series of aspects, and that it prevents the implementation of a genuine poverty reduction policy. Officially, poor people can remain poor provided they are active and have dignity.

The functional model of inclusion

As we can see, inclusion policies at the EU level are built around a specific view of inclusion. The end of marginalisation is no longer sought based on a causal approach of the social experience, as was the case for instance in the providentialist philosophy, but is rather seen as a by-product of economic performance 34. When the Commission is required to justify the cost of social investment policies in its communication, it mentions a number of benefits for society: ‘higher productivity, higher employment, better health and social inclusion, more prosperity and a better life for all’35.

The ideal social experience refers to societal performance in an individualised and vertical view. This model of social inclusion calls upon a highly individual approach of social life, which is no longer just about interpersonal relations, but about the inclusion of each individual in certain social spheres. The only goal of empowering individuals is to help them integrate into a system that already functions based on rules, regardless of individual contributions. Society exists outside of the individuals that inhabit it, and who are simply included into society following an adaptative rather than a contributive approach 36. They can only adjust to existing conditions, and have no potential for participation: there is no room for a horizontal approach of social issues that might offer a genuine alternative to the functional solitude of people 37.

  1. Bihr, A., & Pfefferkorn, R., 2001, ‘L’exclusion : Les enjeux idéologiques et théoriques d’un nouveau paradigme sociologique’, Revue des sciences sociales, (28), 122–128. 

  2. Ewald, F., 2002, ‘Société assurantielle et solidarité. (Entretien avec François Ewald)’, Esprit. See also : Franssen, A., 2008, L’État social actif : une nouvelle grammaire des risques sociaux. Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis. 

  3. Donzelot, J., Mével, C., & Wyvekens, A., 2003, Faire société : la politique de la ville aux Etats-Unis et en France. Paris : Seuil. 

  4. Bauer, F., 2015, ‘Inclusion et planification : vers un territoire inclusif’, Vie sociale, 11(3), 75. 

  5.  Cefaï, D., 1996, ‘La construction des problèmes publics. Définitions de situations dans des arènes publiques’, Réseaux, 14 (75), 43-66. Muller, P., 2005, ‘Esquisse d’une théorie du changement dans l’action publique : Structures, acteurs et cadres cognitifs’, Revue française de science politique, 55 (1), 155 

  6.  Surel, Y., 2000, ‘L’intégration européenne vue par l’approche cognitive et normative des politiques publiques’, Revue française de science politique, 50 (2), 235-254.  

  7.  European Parliament, 2000, Lisbon European council 23 and 24 March 2000. Presidency conclusions, []:(

  8.  European Parliament, 2000, Lisbon European council 23 and 24 March 2000. Presidency conclusions, [^]:() 

  9. European Commission, 2010, Communication from the commission. Europe 2020: a strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth (COM (2010) 2020 final). Brussels : European Commission. 

  10. Atkinson, A. B., Marlier, E., & Nolan, B., 2004, ‘Indicators and targets for social inclusion in the European union’, JCMS, 42(1), 4575.[^30]:Brussels-Capital Region (BCR), 2014, Ibid., 13. Statistical Office of the European Communities, 2015, Smarter, greener, more inclusive? Indicators to support the Europe 2020 strategy. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Accessed at  

  11. The nine items are the ability to pay one’s bills, to stay warm, to cover unexpected expenses, to eat proteins on a regular basis, to go on vacation for one week every year, to own a car, to own a washing machine, to own a colour television set, to own a telephone.  

  12. For this reason, inclusion policies are more relevant to a young person without a stable job than they are to a EU civil servant. Still, both individuals can highlight a problematic kind of sociality, characterised by closed social groups and relatively low social permeability. Closed groups are only considered to be clear targets for inclusion policies when they deviate from a social model that boils down to a few patterns of occupation and consumption. 

  13. European Commission, 2004, Id. Van Wolputte, S., 2010, Social inclusion in the EU-10: Status, trends and challenges. Accessed at    

  14.  Lebrun, N., 2009, Cohésion et inclusion sociale. Les pratiques européennes. Brussels : Pour la Solidarité. 

  15. European Commission, Social investment [^European Commission website]:. Accessed on 30 October 2016 at  

  16. European Commission, 2013 (February 20), Social investment: Commission urges Member States to focus on growth and social cohesion – frequently asked questions. 

  17. Di Nardo, L., Cortese, V., & McAnaney, D., 2010, Le fonds social européen et l’inclusion sociale (Report for the European Commission). Brussels. 

  18. Van Lierop, C., 2016, EU Urban Agenda – State of play (PE 577.986). Brussels: EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service. 

  19. Netherlands Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 2016, Establishing the Urban Agenda for the EU. ‘Pact of Amsterdam’. 

  20. Westphal, K., 2015, Draft report on the urban dimension of EU policies (2014/2213 (INI)) (A8 0218/2015 / PE549.165v01 00). Brussels: Committee on Regional Development (REGI) - European Parliament. 

  21. Westphal, K., 2015, Ibid., 23.[^24]:Dussart, C., & Courtois, M., 2014, Les projets financés par le FEDER en Région de Bruxelles-Capitale. Programmation 2007-2013 et perspectives 2014-2020. Cellule FEDER, Bruxelles Coordination régionale, 43. 

  22. European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. 

  23. Brussels-Capital Region (BCR), 2014, Programme Opérationnel (PO) de la programmation FEDER 2014-2020 en Région de Bruxelles-Capitale. 

  24. European Commission, OP Brussels Capital Region [^European Commission website]:. Accessed on 22 November 2016 at [^]:() 

  25. The eleven projects are: Altaïr nursery, Marchandise nursery, Gosselies nursery, Schaerbeek CPAS nursery, Ulens nursery, Charbonnage nursery, Abbaye de Forest, Masui 4ever, De Vaartkapoen, Actie zkt Burger, Move it Kanal.  

  26. Dussart, C., & Courtois, M., 2014, Ibid., 44. 

  27.  Brussels-Capital Region (BCR), 2014, Ibid., 13. 

  28. Brussels-Capital Region (BCR), 2014, Ibid., 104. 

  29. Cobigo, V., Ouellette-Kuntz, H., Lysaght, R., & Martin, L., 2012, ‘Shifting our Conceptualization of Social Inclusion’, Stigma Research and Action, 2(2), 75-84. 

  30. Brussels-Capital Region (BCR), 2014, Ibid., 92-3. 

  31. Jaeger, M., 2015, Ibid., 47. 

  32. Castel, R., 2009, La montée des incertitudes : travail, protections, statut de l’individu. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 282. 

  33. European Commission, 2010, Communication from the commission. Europe 2020: a strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth (COM (2010) 2020 final). Brussels: European Commission. 

  34. According to the opposition defined by Simmel between a causal/organic approach and a teleological approach of the social experience. 

  35. European Commission, Social investment, Id. 

  36. In an ever-changing society where positions and statuses are more fluid, the concept of conformity takes on a new meaning. Being adjusted no longer means having command of a series of norms, but rather being able to be mobile and flexible. Donzelot and his colleagues emphasise that in the post-Ford era, the new spirit of capitalism involves approaches based on systems rather than specific measures.  

  37. Individual autonomy is a functional necessity, not in terms of self-fulfilment or social fulfilment, but in an instrumentalised view of participation to social functions. See: Kihlstrom, A., 2012, Luhmann’s system theory in social work: Criticism and reflections. Journal of Social Work, 12(3), 287-99. 

illustrations by Pam & Jenny — Website design & development by Variable