Growing fears about the negative social impacts of austerity measures being implemented across Europe dominated discussions at the Citizens' Agora, held at the European Parliament last week (27-28 January).
More that 250 people gathered in Brussels to discuss a series of proposals for how the EU should go about tackling poverty and social exclusion in the aftermath of the financial and economic crises.
"We don't want that our social model will be destroyed or weakened," said Libor Rouček, a vice-president of the European Parliament and co-chair of the Citizens' Agora, summing up the positions of civil society representatives who took part in the event.
Rouček added that – although poverty already existed in the EU before it started – the current financial and economic crisis had "made poverty worse".
The Agora developed a series of proposals including: new European legislation to protect people from the perils of debt, an obligation on member states to guarantee their citizens a basic level of income, and a scheme to make EU officials more aware of the problems that poor people have to deal with in their daily lives.
While recognising the need for member states to balance their public finances, Rouček insisted that the EU as a whole must not forget its social responsibilities.
Speaking to journalists, the Czech Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group MEP underlined the complexity of the social challenges facing the EU, including record levels of unemployment, the problem of the 'working poor', a rise in homelessness, and poverty in rural areas.
According to Rouček, there is a need to ensure more effective cooperation at all levels: among the European institutions, between the EU and its member states, and between the local, regional and national authorities in each of the member states.
"Of course it is also important to involve civil society: the organised civil society, but also our citizens," said Rouček.
Dialogue with civil society
The idea behind the 'Citizens' Agora' is to provide an opportunity for non-politicians and various non-governmental organisations to have a say on how they would like the EU institutions to address major policy challenges.
'Crises and Poverties' was the theme for the 3rd Agora event, which was hosted by the European Parliament and organised - for the first time - in partnership with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).
Agora participants took part in parallel workshops, addressing different aspects of the social impacts of the economic and financial crisis: new forms of poverty, migration and integration, and "challenges for the European model of society".
Participants shared their concerns about the social consequences of the ongoing financial and economic crises, and expressed their fears regarding the potential impacts of austerity measures, including cuts to social welfare benefits and the budgets of public services, which are currently being seen in many EU member states.
Representatives from a wide range of civil society organisations, including many European NGOs that are directly involved in dealing with social challenges, used the Agora as an opportunity to bring some of their ideas and demands to the attention of the EU institutions.
While the conclusions of the Agora contained many statements condemning the social impacts of the crisis, they also include a number of specific proposals that are directly relevant to specific EU policies, or calling for new policies to be developed.
The Citizens' Agora called on the European Commission to develop a legislative proposal on debt, including household debt, which would address concerns such as the advertising of consumer credit and the "excessive interest rates charged by banks".
Another request was that there should be European legislation regarding common standards for minimum income schemes in the member states, as a way to prevent the most extreme cases of poverty. Last year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which calls on all EU member states to introduce minimum income schemes at national level.
Pay attention to 'the horizontal social clause'
Agora participants called on the EU institutions to pay close attention to the so-called 'horizontal social clause' in the Lisbon Treaty, which lays down that "the fight against social exclusion" and "the guarantee of adequate social protection" should be taken into account when the EU is defining and implementing its policies and activities – across all policy areas.
Isabelle Durant, a Green MEP from Belgium, who also co-chaired the Agora, said that all the participants had expressed "indignation and anger" with regard to the extent of poverty in Europe.
"They have the feeling that the European Union has done a lot with regard to the economic field," said Durant, "but not enough in the social field, and in particular for the most vulnerable persons, who are feeling the effects of the crisis in their daily lives".
Responding to a question from EurActiv, Durant underlined her commitment to ensuring that there would be a meaningful follow-up of the Agora's recommendations in the European Parliament.
"I want that with the concrete recommendations, we can organise a real follow-up," said Durant, who is also a vice-president of the European Parliament.
The two co-chairs of the Agora gave an undertaking to forward the various recommendations to the relevant committees in the Parliament, and explore the options for ensuring that as many ideas as possible would be discussed and considered by MEPs.
"Otherwise next year, when we organise a new Agora, nobody will be very happy because it means that we discuss during two days and then it's finished," admitted Durant.
MEPs, EU officials should work with poor people
One of the most innovative proposals to emerge from the Agora was the suggestion that EU officials and MEPs should be encouraged to spend ten days working with associations that are dealing directly with people who are affected by extreme poverty.
"I don't know what form it could take, but raising awareness in a concrete way [regarding] the issue of extreme poverty on the ground could also be an interesting instrument," said Durant.
"It's a very precise proposal and one that would not require much money to implement," she added.
The so-called 'Europe 2020' strategy, which was adopted by EU leaders last year, includes a target to reduce the number of people living in poverty by 20 million in the current decade.
The European Commission has promised to develop and implement seven flagship initiatives in the framework of the 2020 strategy. These include: 'Youth on the Move', 'An Agenda for New Skills and Jobs', and the 'European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion'.
All of these flagship initiatives will have to be discussed and approved by the European Parliament, and also by member states, in the coming months.