Factors Influencing the Development of the Welfare State in Western Europe Since 1945


The period at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century is known for the rise and evolution of the concept of a welfare state. This concept affected many countries around the world, and its emergence in Continental Europe resulted in considerable progress and the creation of new policies for democratic societies. The goals of this form of government were not to promote the nationalization of production or to establish the ideas of collectivization of consumption. The welfare state determined the characteristics of current economic and political affairs and contributed to the distribution of new opportunities, including education, health, social security, and individual rights. Its evolution took different forms and had various outcomes in different countries depending on their political and economic systems. In this paper, special attention will be paid to the rise of the welfare state in such countries as France and Belgium and the extent to which their economic development, as well as their political decisions and achievements, affected its evolution in these western nations of Continental Europe since 1945.

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The Essence of the Welfare State

There are many supporters and opponents of state welfare systems. Some researchers who experienced the development of this form of governance in their countries do not give concrete definitions, but instead focus on its characteristics, its impact on social selection, and its inability to “tolerate a governing class” (Marshall 1953, p. 92). The welfare state turned out to be a consequence of the need for social solidarity, the establishment of a balance between the representatives of different classes, and the promotion of economic well-being and social capital. For example, Douglas (1949) considered the welfare state “the great political invention of the twentieth century” and “the instrument of politics that the communists fear above all else” (p. 600). The idea of analyzing and redistributing wealth worried millions of people, but also inspired many others. Each person was to have the chance to change things in this life, and the government was to participate actively in offering new opportunities.

In Europe, the first signs of a welfare state were observed in the late 19th century. This demonstrated the ability of the government to protect the people and support economic development at different levels. Nations had to demonstrate their readiness to offer equal opportunity to all people, even those who were not able to provide themselves with a liveable minimum. The goals of these states in Europe were to protect children and older adults, to eliminate inequality, to offer social and financial support, and to deal with unemployment. Family principles, parenting, and happy childhoods were also elements of welfare states. Germany was the first country that declares itself a welfare state in the 1870s and provided an example to other Western countries (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria 2016). Then the United Kingdom adopted the same system, showing the value of this direction. At the beginning of the 1900s, countries such as France, Spain, and Italy made similar progressive reforms.

However, modern welfare states began facing serious problems because of the necessity of dealing with challenges to national competitiveness and other serious structural changes. Taylor-Gooby (2017) identified two major challenges for welfare states, including globalization with its associated technological changes, and population aging with the expected and unexpected financial spending, healthcare services, and social care that it entails (Gough 2016). Since 1945, the attitude and essence of welfare state policies have undergone considerable changes. On the one hand, the Germans’ attempts to improve the quality of life and offer social benefits to all people were proved to have failed by the defeat of the Nazis and their dubious attitudes towards fascism. Many countries questioned the need for a new political system in order to achieve improvements. On the other hand, the example of Germany proved how it was possible to take great steps and promote reconstruction and recovery through economic growth. In general, welfare state policies were directed at individuals, not to classes of people, and this confused people because the political and economic basis for national wealth substantially contributed to changes in their lives without providing for the necessary control and order.

Overall Situation in Western Europe Since 1945

The situation after the Second World War was complicated for many European nations. During the first several years following the war after 1945, there was no political unity on the continent because nations had to stabilize their living conditions, support their populations, and establish peace (Sasson 2001). At the same time, during the several decades since 1945 (to be more exact, at the end of the century), the relationships between European countries became characterized by “political and economic convergence,” with thirty-seven nation-states being “closer to each other than at any time in their entire history… including the two Germanies” (Sasson 2001, p. 16). This change was predetermined by a variety of factors, and one of the most important among them was the choice of ideologies for political and economic relations. In Eastern and Central Europe, communist parties prevailed, while Western Europe was run by capitalists who had to combine the impulses of democracy and the previously existing authoritarian regimes (Sasson 2001). It was also necessary to control the activities of liberalists and socialists who wanted to promote their electoral success and introduce a new political system.

Many nations were not able to achieve harmony and chose different partners for their future economic, political, and trade affairs. For example, Austria and Finland preferred to stay neutral, Portugal and Greece focused on the alliance, and Spain accepted the help offered by the United States (Sasson 2001). Western Europe focused on self-development and the establishment of close neighbor relationships, as well as the wealth of their nations. In fact, the main tasks for the Allies after the Second World War were finding a possibility to continue their cooperation, dealing with war damage, and solving the consequences of moral devastation (Gilbert 2009). Left-wing parties proposed the idea of development and the foundation of a welfare system that was based on socialism. Britain was the only country where the welfare state was set up without any problems or major concerns. As a result, healthcare services, unemployment aid, and pensions were improved, and they led to a number of benefits for the population. It was thought that the welfare state could reduce the negative consequences of unemployment, aging, and illness.

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Another significant influence on the rise of welfare states in Western Europe was the beginning of the Cold War between the West and the Eastern Bloc under Stalin. In the next decade after the victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, three main powers emerged, including the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain (Jackson 2009b). A common decision to create a new world order was made by the leaders of these three nations. However, Roosevelt soon recognized the possibility of the Soviet Union extending its power over the whole of Eastern Europe (Jackson 2009b). Therefore, the U.S. government suggested the creation of several security frameworks in the form of the United Nations Charter and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Stalin aimed to establish the dominant position of Moscow in Eastern Europe and forgot about the United States’ support during the war.

The death of Stalin in 1953 led to considerable changes in the relationships between European countries and the United States. Later, Khrushchev and Brezhnev only slightly altered the development of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War could not be stopped, and it resulted in the division of Germany at the end of the 1940s. The Vietnam War, nuclear collaboration in the West, and Asian wars and revolutions (the Korean War and the Chinese Revolution of 1949) were the major events that contributed to the development of the Cold War. Only in the middle of the 1990s was this war declared over with the reunification of Germany, the end of communism and the Soviet-based model, the ecological crisis (Chernobyl), and the rise of the West as the best example of the welfare state model.

Politics in Continental Europe

The development of the welfare state in Western Europe was significantly affected by a number of political factors. When ideologies such as capitalism and communism were discussed and questioned, there was a need for a new ideology. It was not enough to proclaim democracy as the form of governance for all European countries and thus avoid any criticisms or concerns. Christian democracy was offered as one of the possible political ideologies where church beliefs and family values would be combined to support social welfare. However, it was not enough to simply shore up all aspects of the social system after 1945. Additional forms of governance were important for Western nations. Social democracy was another political option in which social justice was promoted and the state was responsible for the security and establishing equality for all people, regardless of their class, origin, or other factors. To avoid the rebirth of communism, the United States developed an understanding of the welfare system in Western Europe and used both political and economic factors to gain its approval (Priestland 2014). Political control turned out to be a significant reason for the rise of the welfare state in Europe.

In addition, the emergence of new political actors and threats to social security required new political decisions. For example, many Western European nations experienced unpredictable labor movements and the creation of new political parties and interest groups. Industrialization and urbanization after the Second World War continued to grow, and tensions between the representatives of different social classes became hard to avoid. Conservatives established their power in France, focusing on narrow social groups and providing high-level services, and Christian Democrats, with their idea of providing lower benefits but for all groups of people, were frequently observed in such countries as Spain and Belgium. It was evident that different political forces offered different possibilities for the establishment of a welfare state. Competition within the political context increased, and the necessity of a common welfare state was questioned. A political coalition was expected, but until the end of the 20th century (i.e., when American impact was present in Western Europe), nations were constrained in their ability to identify their own needs and available resources.

Political power affected the rise of the welfare state to a great extent. It was not enough to identify political freedoms and national justice. It was important to prepare the population and identify goals and achievements. Marshal (1953), as one of the original writers about political and social changes since 1945, emphasized that leadership and power were extremely important for the establishment of the welfare state in their countries, with politicians from all classes being invited. Properly chosen government positions could support the growth of welfare services or diminish the need for development at different levels, including health, education, and pensions.

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Economics in Continental Europe

The essence of the welfare state in Western Europe depended not only on political factors but also on social and economic contributions. The idea of the welfare state included the development of monetary benefits and the decentralization of economic decisions. Although the size of the working class after the process of industrialization did not change significantly after 1945, such factors as immigration and the creation of new jobs in the banking sphere, the leisure industry, and the public sector played a certain role in Western European development (Buchanan 2012). In addition, demographic factors influenced the number of voters and the need for pension and unemployment policies. The promotion of welfare state ideas depended on voting behavior and the conditions which the government could provide for its people. After 1945, nations paid special attention to the concept of a mixed economy promoted by Keynes as the only way to promote prosperity and stability (Jackson 2009a). This process included multiple interventions in fiscal management and the stabilization of financial affairs.

The recognition of economic factors was essential for the rise of the welfare state. First, even the best-organized European nations continued to suffer from such problems as food shortages and physical or moral destruction. Capital equipment was necessary in order for people to realize the available possibilities with respect to their urgent needs (Jackson 2009a). In addition, European leaders had to be ready to develop recovery programs and regulate the economic life of the people. The post-war period is associated with an inability to find enough resources, raw materials, and production, which paralyzed many industries and the agricultural sphere. The Marshall Plan was offered by the United States as financial assistance for the economic recovery of the West (Jackson 2009a). The United States believed that they could control the decisions of the Soviet Union and decrease its growth in Europe. British researchers believed that external financial assistance did not have an as impressive effect on Western nations as expected (Jackson 2009a). In the middle of the 20th century, the European Economic Community (EEC) was established, which effectively promoted fruitful trade relations in Western Europe.

Social democracy and the EEC offered protection for countries and created favorable conditions for economic integration. National autonomy, open and fair trade relations, and the possibility to employ many people from different classes led to a significant economic boom and great success in terms of establishing the welfare state. The economies of Western European countries underwent considerable growth from 1945 until the 1970s (Eichengreen 2001). However, the oil crisis in Europe in 1973, inflation and poorly established fiscal policies affected the progress of welfare states. The mixed economy approach of Keynes was spoiled by frequent financial manipulations, inflation, bureaucracy, and corruption. Unemployment began afflicting Western Europe and weakened the positions of even the most powerful nations (Jackson 2009a). At the same time, all these economic challenges motivated the governments of the West to identify new approaches to prosperity and success and use welfare state policies as the major means to stabilize the situation and discover more effective development steps.

Example of France

The rise of the welfare state influenced many countries, and France is one of the nations with the most complicated history in this regard. Nowadays, France is known as a welfare state with its main policy known as la Sécurité Sociale (McNally 2018). According to this policy, the French government organizes labor and supports the population in regard to four main principles. They include support for sick or incapacitated people, the elderly, the unemployed, and families (McNally 2018). The rise of the welfare state in France was observed after the Second World War. Many countries benefited from the protection offered by the American military after the war, and the consequences of resolving the Berlin crisis in 1961 were stable new trade and political relations (Buchanan 2012). However, in France, the situation differed considerably because of two serious conflicts that affected the country: the Indo-China conflict (the colonization of Vietnam) and the destruction of the Fourth Republic during the Algerian conflict (Buchanan 2012). While the majority of Western European countries focused on consolidation, France had to deal with the outcomes of its past political decisions.

France continued its antagonism toward the United States even after the success of other Western countries. The French government under Charles de Gaulle, and even after his resignation, did not want to depend on Americans, but instead focused on independent economic interventions and transformations within the limits of its dirigisme policy (Buchanan 2012). Unfortunately, even as an opponent of international trade relationships, France, along with other Western countries, experienced certain shifts during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Economic modernization through conservatism and liberalism was the country’s main goal. France followed the welfare state principles defined by Bismarck in the late 19th century and the ideas defended by the French Revolution in the 18th century. People had to be free, equal, and able to earn a living.

Since 1945, the situation in France has changed considerably, but not at the expense of the idea of the welfare state. The impact of politics and economics on the evolution of this form of governance is extremely important today. The current benefits for retirement (pensions), unemployment, and families are calculated so that many people are eager to work longer than their legal retirement age or maternity leave periods. The example of France proves that political and economic affairs can influence the overall success of a country in the global arena, but confidence, individual principles, and readiness to work and self-develop should never be neglected or underestimated.

Example of Belgium

Belgium belongs to the list of modern welfare states that successfully employ a Christian democratic model. The rise of its social security system began in the 20th century after the Second World War, following the principles developed by Bismarck. The process of modernization was based on the outcomes of the post-war crisis and the necessity to provide social protection to both ordinary citizens and professional workers. Local and international trade unions were formed in order to establish and support the country’s socio-economic status. The welfare regime in Belgium was characterized by the presence of conservative and corporatist characteristics, meaning that the country was ready to take serious social risks in order to promote general social insurance provisions (Ghailani & Peña-Casas 2016). The Ghent system was implemented in the country according to which trade unions were responsible for unemployment and pension benefits, not the government.

Another crucial aspect of this system was support for individual rights through collective bargaining. This promoted the reduction of social class inequality and the distinctions that existed between blue and white-collar employees (Ghailani & Peña-Casas 2016). In the Ghent system, more than 90% of workers are covered by collective agreements and are able to avoid the negative consequences of unemployment (Ghailani & Peña-Casas 2016). This was one of the major economic benefits of the rise of the welfare state in Belgium. Collective bargaining in the private sector determines the rights of individuals according to Belgian labor law. Collective bargaining in the public sector defines negotiations as the main issue in regulating financial issues and administrative questions. During meetings of employees and employers, specific pension schemes are established after collective negotiations at a company level, and they are financed by both parties.

The Ghent system also provides all unemployed citizens with subsidies that can be taken from communal funds. Special attention is paid to women, young people, and those who remain unemployed for a considerable length of time. They have special access to minimum incomes so they can survive, make rent payments, and buy food and other goods that are important for living. The establishment of the welfare state in Belgium changed the lives of many people and opened up new opportunities for representatives of different racial and ethnic groups. However, it is also necessary to remember that the evolution of the welfare state depended on a variety of political and economic factors in the country, as well as in the world as a whole.


The establishment of the welfare state in Western Europe lasted many years. The nations selected as examples in Continental Europe, including France and Belgium, demonstrate that the rise of this system of governance could take different forms and lead to different outcomes. However, the essence of the process remains the same – people want a higher quality of life and expect the government to take all necessary steps to achieve this. In the discussion of this topic, it is evident that politics and economics have affected the evolution of the welfare state in France and Belgium as well as in other countries of Western Europe. Some leaders were ready to accept American help and establish international relationships in different fields. The Cold War, globalization, industrialization, and fiscal policies have had an impact on the establishment of the welfare state since 1945 that cannot be ignored. The political and economic achievements of both Belgium and France are impressive in terms of guaranteeing human rights, reducing unemployment concerns, providing pensions, and securing other benefits that have to be available to people.

Reference List

Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, 2016, The search for Europe: contrasting approaches, OpenMind, Web.

Buchanan, T 2012, Europe’s troubled peace: 1945 to the present, 2nd ed, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.

Douglas, WO 1949, ‘The human welfare state’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 97, no. 5, pp. 597-607.

Eichengreen, B 2001, ‘Economy’, in M Fulbrook (ed), The short Oxford history of Europe: Europe since 1945, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, pp. 95-145.

Gilbert, M 2009, ‘From war to cold war’, in K Larres (ed), A companion to Europe since 1945, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, pp. 7-24.

Ghailani, D & Peña-Casas, R 2016, Observatoire social eureopéen: unemployment and pension protection in Europe: the changing role of social partners, Web.

Gough, I 2016, ‘Welfare states and environmental states: a comparative analysis’, Environmental Politics, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 24-47.

Jackson, I 2009a, ‘The cold war: the western European perspective’, in K Larres (ed), A companion to Europe since 1945, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, pp.47-66.

Jackson, I 2009b, ‘Economic developments in Western and Eastern Europe since 1945’, in K Larres (ed), A companion to Europe since 1945, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, pp.95-112.

Marshall, TH 1953, ‘Social selection in the welfare state’, The Eugenics Review, vol. 45, no. 8, pp. 81-92.

McNally, K 2018, Explained: the French welfare state, Web.

Priestland, D 2014, ‘Neoliberalism, consumerism and the end of the cold war’, in AM Kalinovsky & C Daigle (eds), The Routledge handbook of the cold war, Routledge, New York, NY, pp. 401-415.

Sasson, D 2001, ‘Politics’, in M Fulbrook (ed), The short Oxford history of Europe: Europe since 1945, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, pp. 14-52.

Taylor-Gooby, P 2017, ‘Re-doubling the crises of the welfare state: the impact of Brexit on UK welfare politics’, Journal of Social Policy, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 815-835.

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