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Across the European Union, families are struggling. Over the past decade, living standards, employment, and the ability to put food on the table have become less secure. Many families worry that their future is under threat. Meanwhile in EU policymaker circles the family is increasingly seen as a problem - a place where 'outdated' behaviours and ideas are learnt and reinforced.

This paper describes the way that social policy in the European Union views the family as increasingly fragmented and a secondary consideration to other objectives. The family becomes seen as an impediment, instrument or target for intervention, but rarely as a cohesive whole whose autonomy, continuity and comfort represent worthwhile objectives in themselves.

The European Union does not have a family policy so much as it has an anti-family policy: an approach that fragments families into discrete individuals, who in turn become seen as tools or problems to policymakers in the quest for often-conflicting goals. From this perspective, the family is not only conceived of in fragmented terms, but also as a target for interventions designed to break ‘cycles’ of social problems such as poverty and to root out unwanted values, beliefs and behaviours.

While most countries still approach family policy with adults in mind, there has been a retreat at the European level from a focus on the family as a unit and a significant site for informal forms of socialisation. In its place, families are often viewed as a series of distinctive and sometimes antagonistic parts which form key points for policy intervention and the achievement of pre-determined agendas. This paper gives an overview of these policy trends. It argues for recognising the importance of families as cohesive units and not simply as sites for social engineering in European social policy.

Author: Dr Ashley Frawley, visting research fellow, MCC Brussels