In 2012, 124.5 million Europeans were considered “at risk of poverty or social exclusion” according to Eurostat, injecting a sense of urgency into an anti-poverty campaign launched in Brussels yesterday (4 March) ahead of the May European elections.
“These are the last elections for the European parliament, as we know it,” stated Sergio Aires, the president of the European Anti-Poverty Network, in Brussels, on Tuesday (March 4). The concluding remark, at a press conference announcing a campaign to prioritise social issues in May’s EU elections, Aires could not have ended on a more urgent note.
Based on poverty figures distributed by EAPN, it is not hard to understand Aires’ warning. According to his organisation, in 2012, 124.5 million Europeans live “at risk of poverty or social exclusion.”
Such figures fly in the face of the Europe 20/20 strategy, to bring 20 million Europeans out of poverty, by 2020. Since the European Union initiative was first announced in 2010, the number of at-risk persons has increased by 6 million.
According to the campaign’s manifesto, Electing Champions for a Social Europe, there are three potential ways to promote greater equality and social justice in the European Union. The first, ‘A Social Pact for Europe,’ most significantly stresses the need for economic policies to address social needs, not just those of the market. Investing in the social protection system, and better redistributing tax burdens, for example, will help facilitate economic growth.
In an era of austerity-driven policymaking, such proposals will inevitably appear partisan, particularly to advocates of market-based solutions. As though in answer to that concern, the second of the EAPN proposals, ‘An effective EU Strategy to fight Poverty, Social Exclusion, and Discrimination’, the manifesto stresses the economic benefits of tackling social issues such as homelessness, child poverty, and discrimination against minorities and migrants. Taking such an initiative is another way to facilitate job creation, as it emphasises the importance that properly enfranchised communities can play in driving economic growth.
The third proposal, ‘Strengthened democracy and civil society participation’, is the most straightforward. The European Parliament must play a more supportive role in fighting social inequality. From exercising more influence in social policy-making (the EAPN doc does not reference the Commission, but it is clear who “more” is at the expense of) to conducting annual hearings with persons living in poverty, and taking policy advice from anti-poverty NGOs, its concerns are about influence. If the EU wants to be more effective in tackling inequality, and reach its own declared poverty reduction goals, it has to reflect the interests of those who best understand the situation: the poor, and those who advocate for them.
The manifesto’s concern with discrimination, however, touches on some of its bigger concerns, about the health of European democracy, and the feared strengthening of populist parties in the forthcoming EU elections. Asked whether the empowerment of migrants meant the granting of rights and protections equal to European citizens, Aires was affirmative. “Yes,” he said. “It is a funny issue, migration in Europe,” Aires remarked. “If you remember, ten years ago, we were saying it was our salvation. Now, with the democratic crisis, we should attract migrants – good ones, of course. And that was the strategy. And we had to do it anyway, because they weren’t coming to our countries. But, from one moment to another, it became a danger, again.”
Though Aires offered a couple of explanations about what that danger is, the growing backlash to migrants worried him most. “Some politicians in some countries are … saying what the public opinion wants to hear,” Aires commented. “The big fight, at the moment,” he added a couple of moments later, is not the politicians, but “the citizens themselves. Those convinced to vote, on the 25th of May, are exactly the ones not converted to this cause, but converted to other causes and other explanations. One of them is migrants being responsible for our problems, or Roma people being responsible for our problems, or whoever.”
Social policy indicators such as unemployment could soon form part of the European Commission’s regular monitoring of EU countries’ economic and budgetary imbalances under plans floated by Brussels today to deepen the social dimension of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).
Presenting the proposal on Wednesday (2 October), Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the EU had made “giant leaps forward” to strengthen scrutiny of national public deficits during the eurozone debt crisis but that these breakthroughs had yet to be matched on the social policy side.
Under the plans, a “social scoreboard” would be added to the list of indicators already being monitored by the Commission as part of its annual scrutiny of national budget deficits and economic imbalances.
New social indicators in the scoreboard would include:
- The overall unemployment level and its evolution
- The youth unemployment rate and the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET rate)
- The real gross disposable income of households
- The percentage of the working age population at risk of poverty
- income inequalities as measured by comparing the richest 20% of the population with the poorest 20% (the S80/S20 ratio).
Youth unemployment rates have reached unprecedented levels across the EU in the aftermath of eurozone debt crisis, averaging 23% for the EU as a whole, and reaching up 63% in Greece, the Commission said.
More worryingly, the debt crisis has opened a gulf between the stronger countries in the single currency bloc – Germany in particular – and the weaker ones, with unemployment rates in the south and periphery of the euro area reaching an average of 17.3% in 2012, against 7.1% in the north and core of the euro area, it added.
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