With poverty and social exclusion affecting the daily lives of more than 100 million EU citizens, the European Commission yesterday (16 December) unveiled a raft of policy initiatives designed to address the causes and impacts of deprivation.
Against a backdrop of widespread concern about the social consequences of the ongoing economic crisis, the European Commission yesterday presented a long list of measures that it hopes will help to reduce poverty and social exclusion throughout the EU.
The Commission's proposals are set out in the so-called 'The European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion' (EPAPSE), one of seven 'flagship initiatives' developed under the framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which was adopted by EU leaders in June.
Among the main political targets of the strategy is a pledge to lift 20 million Europeans out of poverty in the next ten years.
"The European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion provides the impetus and support to reach the poverty target by 2020," said László Andor, the EU commissioner in charge of employment and social policy, explaining that the commitment to act lies in the hands of member states, the European institutions and all stakeholders.
According to official statistics, there are more than 100 million people in the European Union who can be described as being at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This total includes more than 40 million who are affected by 'severe material deprivation', which means that they are unable to afford basic necessities such as adequate heating.
"This situation is clearly unacceptable from an ethical point of view, but it's also an economic waste," said Andor. "As countries battle against the consequences of the crisis, such big numbers on the margins of society are also a massive waste of human resources and potential."
Cautious welcome from social NGOs
Social NGOs have welcomed the Commission's proposals, but they are also calling for urgent and large-scale actions to counteract the negative social impacts of the ongoing economic crisis that can be seen across all member states.
"The poverty-reduction target and the actions proposed in the 'Platform against Poverty' should ensure that there is an important political legacy from the 2010 Year for combating poverty and social exclusion," said Ludo Horemans, president of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN).
"However, given the reality of the austerity measures taken in most member states, which impact on people living in poverty and exclusion the most, urgent actions will be needed if the good intentions and commitments in the Platform are to be convincing," he added.
EAPN is calling for a European framework that would oblige all member states to strengthen their social protection systems by providing adequate minimum income schemes at national level.
The European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion includes a long list of elements, which are grouped into five areas of action.
The first deals with 'action to fight poverty and exclusion across the policy spectrum'. It covers initiatives related to employment, social protection and access to services, education and youth policies, migration and the integration of migrants, social inclusion and anti-discrimination.
The second concerns EU funds and making sure that these are used in a way that contributes to the goals of the Europe 2020 strategy in terms of poverty reduction and social inclusion. Particular emphasis is placed on the role of the European Social Fund (ESF), which provides training and support to more than five million unemployed people each year.
In partnership with the European Investment Bank (EIB), the Commission is currently in the process of setting-up a new 'microfinance' scheme, which will provide around €500 million of small loans to help people set up new businesses over the coming ten years. The aim of this initiative is to promote self-employment and support the creation of new jobs in small businesses.
The third set of actions spelled out in the EU proposal seeks to develop "an evidence-based approach to social innovations and reforms". The idea here is to try out different approaches in specific local areas, and then carefully analyse the results using scientific methods to determine which ones are the most effective in terms of improving people's lives.
According to Andor, the Commission will help countries use evidence-based innovation to test and assess policy change. For example: financing projects that look at new or different ways of distributing existing social benefits to particular social groups.
"Once we manage to create these good practices we will share the experience with others, and this can apply to many different conditions. This can apply to questions of housing, or especially when you need to connect the various aspects of poverty and deprivation," said the commissioner, underlining the need for such an approach in the case of the Roma and other marginalised communities.
Partnership with stakeholders
The fourth main proposal aims to promote partnership and support the continued involvement of stakeholders at all levels: local, regional, national and European.
"It's clear that the European institutions have to work together with the member states, the regional and local governments, the NGOs and the social partners in order to succeed," said Andor, arguing that funding can successfully reach the needy if all stakeholders combine their efforts.
Under the partnership heading, the Commission also wants to promote the social economy, including not-for-profit companies and other structures which can be used to provide services and create jobs at local level. Therefore it will present a 'Social Business Initiative' in 2011.
Finally, the Commission is promising to support and improve the coordination of policies among all the member states, in particular by closely monitoring the implementation of the National Reform Programmes (NRPs) within the framework of the Europe 2020 strategy.
"Enhanced cooperation among member states should further increase the value of the sharing of knowledge and expertise," says Andor. "This will help increase the momentum and concentration on critical issues such as child poverty and homelessness."
Overall progress will be reviewed every year, and the Commission is planning to organise an annual convention each autumn, starting in 2011. This event will bring together all the actors involved in the various aspects of the European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion.
The European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) welcomes the Commission's proposal of a framework based on a multi-dimensional approach to tackle poverty and social exclusion, in particular the commitment to mobilise all policies in the fight against poverty. However, it regrets that the strategy fails to recognise "the negative impact of growing levels of inequalities in our societies".
EAPN Director Fintan Farrell said: "While the communication commits to a dynamic engagement with stakeholders, including NGOs and people experiencing poverty, the governance of the strategy remains unclear. If the strategy is to be a truly EU-wide strategy and not just a Brussels-based exercise, then local and national action plans for inclusion, as well as follow up of distinct thematic areas, will be essential to deliver on the promise of engaging stakeholders."
AGE Platform Europe, which defends the interests of senior citizens, is calling on the Commission and member states "to do their utmost to involve civil society as an equal partner to help shape social protection policies and to ensure broad public support for the upcoming reforms".
It is also asking national governments "to adopt measures to ensure that older people have access to the range of goods and services that are necessary to participate fully in society and live in dignity".
AGE Secretary-General Anne-Sophie Parent said: "Member states will now have to explain what they propose to effectively prevent all aspects of poverty and social exclusion in old age such as lack of adequate pension, severe material deprivation which prevents older people from living in dignity, and shrinking access to basic services such as healthcare and long-term care or decent housing."
Eurociett (the European Confederation of Private Employment Agencies) regretted the seemingly negative references to temporary employment in the communication, and called on the Commission to consider the benefits of temporary work, which provides a route for young people to enter the labour market.
Eurociett Managing Director Denis Pennel said: "Temporary agency work is actually the most secure form of external flexible work, and should be differentiated from the less secure forms of employment. Agency work gives young people and the low skilled the access to on-the-job experience and vocational training to make quality transitions through the labour market. In the EU, within a year of becoming an agency worker one third will be offered a permanent contract."
Eurocities pointed out that in the title of the Commission's communication it states that the purpose of the proposed platform is to provide "a European framework for social and territorial cohesion".
Eurocities Secretary General Paul Bevan said: "If the Platform against Poverty is to help us achieve social and territorial cohesion, local governments need to play an active role. Local authorities are the closest level of government to citizens and they have extensive knowledge of existing and emerging social problems, as well as the solutions. The Platform should build on cities' experience and understanding of tackling poverty."