László Andor, the EU commissioner responsible for employment, social affairs and inclusion, believes poverty reduction must be one of the main goals of the Structural Funds in the years leading up to 2020.
Speaking last Thursday (18 November) at a seminar in Brussels, organised by the Belgian Presidency of the EU, Andor noted that 84 million people are directly affected by poverty in the European Union. "This is not acceptable in the 21st century," he said.
The Hungarian commissioner referred to the 5th Cohesion Report, published on 10 November, which sets out a series of proposals for reforming EU regional policy – including the rules that govern how money from the EU Structural Funds is used to support different kinds of projects in the member states.
In this report, the Commission states that in the future it will be "necessary to ensure that member states and regions concentrate EU and national resources on a small number of priorities".
While member states will be expected to focus on a limited number of objectives when deciding how to spend the money they receive from the EU, Andor believes that these priorities should include social inclusion and poverty reduction.
"This would be in line with the setting of poverty reduction and increasing employment as the key targets for our policies in this decade," said the commissioner.
The EU structural funds include the European Fund for Regional Development (EFRD), the European Social Fund (ESF), and the Cohesion Fund. Together, the three funds will pay out a total of around €350 billion during the current seven-year period (2007-2013).
Poverty target 'crucial' to success of 2020 strategy
Andor is pleased that Europe's leaders have "for the first time ever" agreed on a target to reduce the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion. As part of the EU's '2020 strategy', member states have promised they will aim to lift at least 20 million people out of poverty by 2020.
The '2020 Strategy' follows on from the Lisbon Strategy, agreed by EU leaders in March 2000. However, they did not fix a specific target for reducing the number of people living in poverty.
The 'Europe 2020' strategy will be implemented by national governments, supported by the European Commission. Each member state will have to fix its own national target for poverty reduction, and prepare a plan for how it will work towards achieving this target in the framework of its National Reform Programme. Progress will be reviewed on a regular basis.
According to Andor, meeting the poverty reduction target "will be crucial to the success of Europe 2020 and to ensuring that everyone can enjoy the benefits of growth".
Social inclusion is 'economic necessity'
"Promoting the full integration and participation of disadvantaged groups of people is not only a moral obligation and an expression of our values; it is also an economic necessity," said Commissioner Andor. "We cannot afford to waste an important source of knowledge, skills and productivity."
In order to ensure long-term growth, the commissioner believes it will be necessary to promote participation in, and improve the functioning of, labour markets in the member states.
"The EU needs to make full use of all instruments at its disposal and ensure coherence between them," said Andor.
The commissioner highlighted in particular the important role played by the European Social Fund (ESF), which has a budget of €75 billion for the current seven-year period.
"ESF funding plays an important role in supporting people to get back on track – for example, by helping them to integrate into the labour market," said Andor.
"This can involve outreach, guidance, counselling, training, employment support and personalised services, as well as incentives for direct job creation and support for business start-ups. Every year the ESF supports training for several millions of Europeans."
The commissioner noted that a significant slice of the Fund ("more than 10 billion euros") is reserved for measures that are specifically designed to promote social inclusion.
"The ESF is therefore a practical demonstration of how the EU actively promotes social inclusion alongside economic growth," said Andor.
NGOs say crisis is making poverty worse
Meanwhile, the organisations that represent people who are directly affected by poverty are complaining that the social situation in Europe is actually getting worse, rather than better.
They point to the continuing consequences of the financial and economic crises during the past three years, as well as the negative impacts of cuts to public services and social systems, as national governments take drastic action to reduce their budget deficits.
"The austerity measures are a purely economic answer to a social crisis," says Conny Reuter, president of the Platform of European Social NGOs. "They're pushing millions of people, previously affected by the crisis itself, deeper into poverty."
The platform is part of the 2010 Coalition of Social NGOs, which was set up to ensure a strong civil society involvement in the European Year for combating poverty and social exclusion. Last Friday (19 November), the coalition organised a 'Human Ring around the European Parliament' to draw attention to the need for concerted action to tackle poverty across the EU.
The 2010 coalition is being coordinated by Fintan Farrell, the director of the European Anti-Poverty Network. According to Farrell, "we will not get out of the crisis if we do not tackle the redistribution of wealth, reverse the growing levels of inequalities and prioritise policies to fight poverty and social exclusion".