The need to urgently improve access to finance was highlighted at the conference's opening session by Eva Szarvak of the Hungarian branch European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN), who noted that the economic crisis had created great "uncertainty and insecurity" for citizens in new member states, who are facing soaring costs of servicing foreign currency loans as the value of their own money falls.
"It shows social policy is not the only important tool in fighting poverty, but our approach must also involve financial policy," said Jérôme Vignon, a director at the European Commission responsible for social protection and integration.
The Commission is already addressing the issue of the cost of falling currencies via the European Recovery Plan, which "aims at convergence in macroeconomic policy," said Vignon.
The Commission official said the Brussels executive would again "call for convergence" in recovery plans at the next Council summit in June. Vignon said the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank and the EU executive all have a role to play in ensuring that macroeconomic policy is more coordinated to "stop further devaluation".
Marián Hošek, Czech deputy minister for social policy and services, argued that the decreasing value of a home currency can have all too real implications. As an example, the Czech deputy minister mentioned the case of a single parent whose child support payments, which came from abroad, were mostly lost in currency exchange fees. But in this instance "the fees are paid by the Czech government," said Hošek.
EU role in microcredit
On top of the economic crisis, which has amplified difficulties faced by the poor in dealing with financial services, activists also noted that EU regulation could hinder anti-poverty initiatives.
Caroline Hardy from the UK's Anti-Poverty Network Cyrmu spoke of the success of Credit Unions (community-organised financial cooperatives) in providing a source of finance for "working-class people". But she also described the barriers that Credit Unions face due to onerous EU regulation.
"Credit Unions have missed out on European funding to pay staff because they are considered to be competing with banks," said Hardy. "If we had government backing, they could do a lot more than they already do," she stressed.
Philippe Guichandu, director of the European Microfinance Network, descrived recent government initiatives in France, which tried to reduce barriers for poor people in accessing finance by linking banks with NGOs. However, "regulation makes it difficult" for NGOs to run such programmes, said the microcredit expert.
Guichandu, however, he said he is more optimistic about the future because the Commission, and particularly DG Employment, has begun programmes to reduce the negative effect that regulations have on microcredit, such as the Commission's JASMINE (Joint Action to Support Micro-Finance Institutions in Europe) initiative.