One of the 14 'new' commissioners who started this year under the 'Barroso II' Commission is Hungarian economist László Andor, who is responsible for employment, social policy and inclusion.
In a wide-ranging interview, Andor spoke to EurActiv about the main issues he has been dealing with in 2010: employment and the 'Europe 2020' strategy, the future of the European Social Fund (ESF), the fight against poverty and social exclusion – including support to the Roma population, and the reform of Europe's pension systems.
Andor believes the European Year for combating poverty and social exclusion "helped to create a momentum from the very first moment".
"The message has been sent very forcefully to the general public in all member states […] that this is a very serious social problem in Europe - despite the fact that this one of the most advanced high-income regions of the world economy".
"I think we also sent a clear message that this is a responsibility for everyone, every government and also every citizen, to help those who suffer from exclusion or various types of social disadvantages, and that we have to do more," continued the commissioner.
Andor stressed the direct connection between the European Year and the 'Europe 2020' strategy, adopted by EU leaders in June, which aims at increasing employment levels and creating the conditions for "smart, sustainable and inclusive growth".
However, he countered suggestions that the Commission has done little to actually address poverty, at a time when welfare programmes are being severely cut back by austerity measures.
"The fact that this campaign was launched and maintained on such a high level contributed to the adoption of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, with the inclusive pillar and the poverty target and the poverty platform," says Andor.
"Realistically, you cannot expect more from a campaign."
European strategy, national targets
The Europe 2020 strategy includes an EU-wide target to reduce the number of people who are directly affected by poverty from its current level of more than 80 million to around 60 million in the next ten years. The other so-called 'headline targets' relate to employment, education, research and innovation, climate change and energy efficiency.
At European level, the strategy will be backed-up by a fleet of seven flagship initiatives. These include the 'Agenda for new skills and jobs', which was presented by the Commission last month, and the 'European Platform against Poverty', which will be unveiled later today (16 December).
At national level, each of the 27 member states is expected to develop and implement a national reform programme (NRP) along the five 'headline targets' of the 2020 strategy. Andor says the Commission has an important role to play in helping the member states develop their own anti-poverty strategies in that framework.
"Each member state now has to submit – and many of them already have submitted – their own programmes, in which their own poverty target is explained, their level of ambition is expressed and also they tell how exactly they want to implement it," explained the commissioner.
"Whichever factor is most important in a certain country should be prioritised," Andor continued. "So in some countries it is structural employment, in other countries inclusion of the Roma minority, in some developing social services or in others simply to create jobs."
The European Commission will monitor the implementation of the national reform programmes in all of the member states, and it will also put in place measures to support the sharing of knowledge and to promote the spread of best practices across the whole EU.
The European Platform against Poverty will focus on 'social experimentation', which Andor describes as "science-based social innovation". The commissioner told EurActiv that this flagship initiative will support the development of pilot projects in specific territorial areas "to improve social conditions in a sustainable way".
According to Andor, the European Social Fund (ESF) also has a major role to play in supporting the fight against poverty. The Fund, which currently has a budget of more than €10 billion per year, is intended especially for training courses and other schemes that help workers to find jobs.
"I would like to enhance the share of the ESF which is focusing on social inclusion, and make it clearer that the ESF in the future is primarily about delivering on the 2020 targets," says Andor. "It's not about reinventing the ESF but refocusing it and developing better project designs that help more."