Children must be at the heart of debate on Europe’s future

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

25 million children live in poverty in the EU. [luxorphoto/Shutterstock]

Most people debating the future of Europe think in economic terms. But today we must think about how children in Europe are experiencing their childhood, as that will be the biggest determining factor of our future, writes Jana Hainsworth.

Jana Hainsworth is the secretary general of Eurochild. This opinion piece is published ahead of the Universal Children’s Day (20 November).

Despite evidence that economic growth is returning to the continent, years of austerity have pushed more and more people to the margins. Children, especially those at risk of poverty, continue to face the brunt of this cycle of disadvantage. 25 million children, to be precise.

Our societies have become fragmented by fear mongering and populists who see the national interest in trumping solidarity. This is evident in our responses to the unaccompanied children seeking refuge from war and deprivation. Meanwhile, autocratic leaders undermine the efforts of civil society, thereby weakening our democracy.

Children are not immune to the stresses of society. If we, however, offer quality services for children and support to their families, they are more likely to achieve their dreams and goals, and as a result, become active and engaged adults.

Similarly, we need to judge how to best integrate the children and young people arriving in Europe, who are eager to build a new home, learn new languages and make new friends. Delivering a future for Europe must mean investing first in children.

With Brexit discussions ongoing, the EU is reassessing and reorganising its policies and finances for the future.

EU Commissioner Marianne Thyssen recently supported childcare and social inclusion policies as good investments, for their social and economic returns. Comparing return on investment of building roads, she said childcare practically pays for itself.

The earlier we recognise that fragile democracies require care and attention, the stronger we will be. And this attention must come in the form of policy guidance and funding.

Last week, the EU leaders recognised that social inclusion is critical to bridging the democratic deficit. Twenty years after the first EU Social Summit, heads of state gather in Gothenburg to sign their support to the European Pillar of Social Rights. With this, they have recommitted to the EU as a social, and not only an economic community.

On children’s rights, the Social Pillar specifically commits governments to protecting children from poverty by providing children and their families the quality services they need, in an accessible and affordable manner.

The Social Pillar also recommends that governments develop strategies to bring children’s voices and perspectives into the decisions that affect their lives and the services that they use.

The next Multi-Annual Financial Framework has to provide the means with which to realise this commitment. The next EU budget cycle has to learn from past successes and failures. It is short-sighted, for example, to focus the European Social Fund on short-term employment measures. Investment in children, families and communities will produce more sustainable returns.

Tying regulations on the use of EU structural funds to deinstitutionalisation, the process of transforming child protection [so that separating children from families is the last resort] is a positive example.

This has enabled several national governments to access the additional funding they need to reform their child protection systems. As the proposal for the next MFF is expected to shape public debate on the future of the block, we are convinced that it must similarly make tackling child poverty a thematic priority.

The children’s rights community, with children and young people themselves, is eager to support the development of such mechanisms and hold the EU leaders to their commitments.

On Monday, we bring a dozen children from across Europe to speak directly to the European Parliament about their vision of the Europe they want.

We are pleased the European Parliament has stepped up its work with children and young people through its designated intergroup over the last few years; yet we see the potential to achieve much more across all EU institutions if children’s rights are given the prominence they deserve.

Children and young people have enormous creative energy to address the challenges of our time. Listening to them will reinvigorate our democracies.  We also need to give them the chance to contribute to the debates on the Future of Europe.  We hope today will kick-start that process so that the transformation of the European Union reflects their aspirations and ideals.

Let’s make this moment a positive turning point for Europe and its children.