After months of controversy between Eastern and Western EU countries, it appears increasingly likely that EU leaders will lower their ambitions on poverty reduction during a summit in Brussels on 17 June, diplomats said.

EU employment and social affairs ministers will meet in Luxembourg next week (7 June) in an attempt to cobble together a deal on poverty indicators, a subject that has provoked widespread disagreement among member states in recent months (see 'Background').

The discussions come after 2010 was designated the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. 

The main sticking point is the inability of member states to agree on how precisely poverty should be measured.

Indicators vary widely between countries, with some like France having long-standing binding commitments to reduce poverty (EurActiv 26/04/10) and others like Romania having none at all (EurActiv 22/04/10).

As a compromise, the Spanish EU Presidency decided to drop the Commission's proposal to have one unifying "at-risk-of-poverty" measurement, and instead offered three alternative yardsticks:

  1. At-risk-of-poverty (i.e. people living with less than 60% of national median income);
  2. Material deprivation (i.e. people who experience at least four out of nine defined deprivation situations);
  3. People living in jobless households (i.e. population defined in relation to zero or very low work-intensity over a whole year) to reflect a dynamic perspective of poverty linked to situations of prolonged exclusion from the labour market.

According to an earlier presidency paper, adopting a wider variety of measurements better reflects the "multi-dimensional nature of poverty" and the divergences between member states.

Germany reportedly favours the 2nd option, while the Nordic countries favour the 3rd. France, meanwhile, is opposed to the 3rd option because it believes that limiting the indicator to the labour market excludes young people and pensioners.

Countries will therefore be able to choose one of the three indicators, depending on what they feel best suits their national needs.

Downscaling ambitions?

Once they have selected their preferred measurement, each member state will then have to calculate the number of its citizens living "at risk of poverty or exclusion".

However, diplomatic sources said this new choice of measurement would result in a far higher figure for EU citizens living in poverty, jumping from an initial 80 million to 120 million.

The sources went on to argue that while the overall poverty figure would increase, it is unlikely that the reduction target – i.e. lifting 20 million Europeans out of poverty – would follow suit. Instead, this figure would be maintained, which proportionately would result in a more modest 15% overall poverty reduction goal, down from the original 25%.

Should employment and social affairs ministers agree on these overall parameters, member states would engage in lengthy negotiations from 7-17 June to smooth out these "extremely technical details," diplomats concluded.

Fintan Farrell, director of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN), told EurActiv that while the proposed compromise position was not as strong as the Commission's original plan, "the whole point of creating this target was to generate debate and bring pressure on EU leaders to reduce poverty and social exclusion".

"The debate has definitely been a success," he added, but he cautioned that "we'll have to wait and see whether it has a genuine impact in reducing European poverty".