Poverty and violence: Europe post-2015

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Sleeping through homelessness. Brussels, June 2015. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

Sebastian Große-Puppendahl, Alisa Herrero and Anna Knoll argue that the EU will fail to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals unless it takes concrete action soon. 

Sebastian Große-Puppendahl, Alisa Herrero and Anna Knoll are Policy Officers at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) in Maastricht.

A cornerstone of the global agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be agreed on at the UN this September, is the idea that they will be ‘universal’. This means that all UN members will need to comply with the targets that they have set for themselves, and do their bit for collective action on global common goods, like climate change and the environment.

Yet little discussion has taken place within Europe about what that concretely means for us. Difficult choices are ahead for the EU, and we really have to ask if we are all in it together.

Now here’s the challenge: if everyone’s actions at the national level have to collectively add up to meet the ambitious global goals, how can politicians and bureaucrats translate them into national policies that can be sold to voters, especially given the current economic climate? How can we ensure that the priorities for individual countries remain aligned with global ones? Let’s look at the examples of poverty, consumption and violence.

Reducing Poverty

What about the goal of ‘reducing at least by half the proportion of men, women and children living in poverty,  according to national definitions. The EU’s Charter on Fundamental Rights (which became legally binding in the Lisbon Treaty) recognises the right to social and housing assistance to ensure a decent existence for all. The results of the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and the Cohesion Fund have been impressive. The EU remains the world’s model for low inequality and social protection.

The ‘Europe 2020’ strategy aims to lift 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and social exclusion by 2020. This target corresponds to a situation where 96.4 million people are at risk of poverty and social exclusion in 2020. Five years after its launch, this headline target seems out of reach. According to the most recent EU data, nearly a quarter of the EU population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2012, 17% was at risk of income poverty after social transfers, and 10% lived in jobless households.

The number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion in the EU increased from 114 million in 2009 to 124 million in 2012. This dramatic social crisis can only be understood against the backdrop of the EU’s unprecedented economic and fiscal crisis, and the imposition of harsh austerity programmes. The crisis has not affected every country equally, or with the same intensity, and in doing so has exacerbated intra-EU differences. This will have knock-on effects on whether the EU can reduce its internal relative rate of poverty across what is still a divergent continent.

The Europe 2020 target is less ambitious than the SDG targets which, translated to the European context, would demand over three times as many people – nearly 62 million – to be lifted out of the risk of poverty. What is clear is that both the Europe 2020 and SDG targets seem highly unrealistic based on current trends. The negotiations of the Greek crisis show that major unresolved frictions between creditor and debtor member states could be undermining the very essence of the EU’s integration project: intra-European solidarity.

Sustainable Consumption and production

Given the amount of global resources that the EU consumes, the UN goals on natural resources could have huge implications. The EU as a whole, and individual member states, will need to factor in both future dependence on various natural resources and businesses’ high demand for these resources.

For the EU, there are clear benefits from a sustainable reduction in its environmental footprint in energy production, agriculture, food waste and protein consumption. Working towards differentiated targets could also bring economic gains. Pricing, taxation reform, new production and reporting standards, ‘green’ public procurement, labelling and public awareness campaigns could all help adjust production and consumption patterns.

Already in place is the 2008 Raw Materials Initiative, and the more recent ‘Circular Economy’ communication. The EU is also developing best practices in the sustainable supply of raw materials through its engagements in the World Trade Organisation, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the G7 and the G20. However, EU data shows that ten member states are already lagging behind.

For the EU, taking global leadership on natural resources is a win-win situation, as helping countries outside Europe through technology transfers and technical assistance means combining our international development goals, while simultaneously practicing economic diplomacy and contributing to common goods like clean air, biodiversity and the conservation of ecosystems.

Working towards peaceful and inclusive societies

Violence and insecurity are not the exclusive concern of poor countries. While Europe is the most ‘peaceful’ region in the world, violence against women, the illicit trafficking of firearms, and radicalisation and violent extremism are all in need of urgent action. While homicide rates vary greatly across Europe, the highest rate, in Lithuania, is comparable to that of Chad or Uruguay. For those with low rates, “getting to zero” will be impossible.

The discussions on national targets open a wider debate on national attitudes to crime and the gaps in EU police cooperation and legal frameworks. While there is cooperation within the EU, member states’ legal frameworks differ significantly, leaving loopholes that criminals exploit. Statistics on violent crimes and homicides are differently registered from country to country, and the lack of standard definitions of crimes hampers comparisons across countries.

Europe faces serious illicit firearms trafficking problems, with almost half a million lost or stolen firearms unaccounted for in the Schengen region. Moreover, there is not yet EU-wide legislation addressing violence against women. While EU member states have recently been encouraged to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, only nine member states have done so.   

Europe will soon have to start concretely translating the UN Sustainable Development goals across many policy areas if it is to avoid the new global development agenda being merely a paper tiger without any real bite.