We are at a defining point in the development of the European Union. A stronger EU architecture can only be created through more solidarity and innovation, and more efficient social investment. This is what has to be encouraged and also supported, writes László Andor.
László Andor is Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
On the eve of the European elections it is important to reassert how social policy innovation is crucial to ensure that EU countries can exit the social crisis and how we can make the European social model more resilient through better cooperation.
That is the vision of the Europe 2020 Strategy, which seeks to build an EU based on a social market economy fit for the 21st century, capable of fostering smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
To accomplish this, the Member States in 2010-11 set themselves targets, including lifting at least 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion and ensuring that 75% of those aged 20-64 are in employment and that at least 40% of young people earn a third level degree by 2020.
Today, we are far from meeting these targets. While some countries made good progress, the financial crisis has caused divergence and polarisation in Europe in terms of employment and the social situation. Inequality has been growing, and the number of people at risk of poverty or exclusion has risen by 6.6 million. In 2012, 123 million Europeans were living in poverty or facing the risk of social exclusion.
We face enormous challenges. The eurozone crisis is not yet over. We still need to find the way to a balanced, sustainable and job-rich recovery. Solidarity is lacking at the EU level but often within societies too.
Member States have to prove that they can rise to these challenges by accelerating reform of the EMU. At the same time, it is also crucial that Member States implement the necessary reforms in line with the Employment Package, the Youth Guarantee and the Social Investment Package in order to strengthen safety nets and facilitate more and better investment in human capital.
The time for action is now. The social dimension of the EMU has to be strengthened, and social policy innovation needs to be better embedded in policy-making, including in the European Semester.
Over the last few years the focus already has shifted from supporting innovative community projects and transnational cooperation to enabling services, investing in children and ensuring access to quality healthcare and long-term care in line with the policy goals we have set at EU level.
The best way to demonstrate that social policy innovation not only improves citizens' lives in the short term but also feeds into social policies in the longer term is to look at concrete projects.
One example is the European Social Fund-supported Digital Activist Inclusion Network (DAIN) project in the UK, which aimed to combat digital exclusion, reaching individuals without basic digital skills or access to the Internet. The project is a good example of innovative and sustainable investment in human capital and the promotion of social inclusion. The digital activist volunteers were recruited from disadvantaged groups to engage over 3000 digitally excluded individuals in activities to promote e-inclusion.
My second example is a project-collaboration by Italy, Romania and Bulgaria introducing a new professional figure, the ‘Social Intermediary’, to ensure a smooth transition out of institutional care for young people. The use of social intermediaries was considered successful and the project recorded improved socialising and relationship skills of the young people involved. In 2012 when financial support for project by the EU's PROGRESS programme ended, a major bank continued working with the municipality of Bologna and has since proposed to replicate the project in Rome.
This demonstrates that municipalities and the private sector can successfully work together to secure social outcomes. And that it can feed into the Commission's policy work. In this particular case the experience with the project helped to develop the 2012 “Common European Guidelines on the Transition from Institutional to Community-Based care”.
My third example is the "Social Innovation and micro-savings in Europe" project, which looked at the role of financial inclusion in social investment strategies. Three pilot schemes in Belgium, France and Hungary were tested to promote savings among low-income and impoverished people (micro-savings).
These projects and the many others have highlighted some key lessons the Commission considers vital for the future development of social innovation.
First of all, public authorities should be involved in social policy innovation to a greater extent with a view to effective scaling-up and improving sustainability.
Secondly, the policy objectives should be an integral part of the methodology used and social outcomes should be measured.
Thirdly, we need to recognise and support more strongly the role of social entrepreneurs in devising innovative solutions, particularly when working in partnership with public authorities.
But further work is also needed from a broader policy perspective. We need to better embed social policy innovation in the policy reforms we advocate under the European Semester and link the outcomes to policy priorities.
Member States have been asked to explain in their yearly national social reports how they used social policy innovation to make social protection more effective, improve social services and boost social investment. This will help to assess the extent to which social policy innovation has played a role in the reforms we have been calling for in the Social Investment Package.
With the help of EU funds such as the European Social Fund and the Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI, formerly Progress) we will continue to support social innovation throughout the EU. With EU support we need to ensure that Member States have the capacity to implement social policy innovation and that the outcomes feed into national reforms.
To achieve this, I cannot overstate the importance of fostering strong partnerships between civil society, social service providers and social entrepreneurs. Broader alliances are needed for better results.
We are at a defining point in the development of the European Union. A stronger EU architecture can only be created through more solidarity and innovation, and more efficient social investment. This is what has to be encouraged and also supported.
The Commission's actions in this area have been laying the groundwork for a resilient economy and an inclusive society in Europe. Social policy innovation is an essential tool for achieving these goals.