A call for a Child Union

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Out of the 100,000 children and children with special needs (the two categories are different), only 8,000 are currently integrated across Romanian schools. [Shutterstock]

Ahead of World Children’s Day, over 300 figures from the world of politics, academia and civil society have signed a joint call demanding the rapid entry into force of the European Child Guarantee and a Next Generation EU funding that truly works for Europe’s next generations.

This piece was authored by Brando Benifei, head of the S&D group’s Italian Delegation and Rapporteur on the European Child Guarantee; Maria João Rodrigues, president of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS); Agnes Jongerius, head of the S&D Group’s Dutch Delegation, chair of Social Europe Network of the Party of European Socialists (PES); Christophe Rouillon, president of the PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions.

Europe’s greatest fragility is the undermining of welfare which is leading to increasing inequalities and making our society more vulnerable to economic, environmental, and health crises.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed new and dramatic challenges to vulnerable households. As experts, activists and policymakers we think that it is time to raise Europe’s ambitions and put forward this strong call for a Child Union.

This expresses the demand to the EU to reach the expectations of its citizens and ensure wellbeing not only through a Banking Union, Capital Markets Union, Energy Union and other economic cooperation, but through a Social Union that has a strong mandate on the wellbeing of every child.

We know that we can and must do better. That is why we launched this joint call for a Child Union, built on three objectives: first, a rapid entry into force of the European Child Guarantee; second, the development of an investments ecosystem for European children starting with the Next Generation EU funding; and third, guaranteed equal access to quality and inclusive early childhood education and care for all.

23 million children in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion prior to the pandemic. The financial difficulties endured by European families due to Covid-19 as well as the disruption in educational and care services have added additional strain to an already worrisome situation. The impact of the pandemic on children’s inequalities is uneven and alarming.

Our children are the key to building more just and sustainable societies. Overwhelming evidence shows that inequalities in life chances are formed in the early years of life and are largely passed on through generations.

At present, only half of EU member states have reached the EU objective of 33% coverage for early childhood education and care (ECEC) below the age of 3. In 9 countries, fewer than 1 out of 5 children enjoys childcare, and that is usually the one from a better off household (EUROSTAT).

A Study led by FEPS and partners finds that European children aged between 0 and 3 years old from the bottom 40% socio-economic status are about 15% more likely to attain average scores once teenagers, if they have access to childcare at the age of 1 or 2.

The Study indicates that unless we provide quality and inclusive services, care and education in early years in Europe remains a means for children from better off households to achieve their best potential rather than a means to reduce inequalities and eradicate social exclusion.

As progressives, we demand a systemic transformation: the end of ECEC as a demand-driven service and the beginning of an era where it is an entitlement for every child. A legal and social right enshrined in European law, building on the European Pillar of Social Rights.

The EU possesses the capacity for policy innovation and the political strength to facilitate a new era of support and development for all European children and to address such very stubborn trends of inequality. To this end, as progressive leaders, scholars and activists from across Europe, our vision for a Child Union is grounded on the following objectives:

First, a rapid entry into force of the European Child Guarantee. Many members of the European Parliament and the whole progressive family have called for a European Child Guarantee to tackle the multidimensional aspects of child poverty.

The Child Guarantee would ensure that every European child in or at risk of poverty has access to quality and free early childcare, along with health care, education, decent housing, and adequate nutrition.

Negotiations are ongoing and all efforts must be made to ensure that the Child Guarantee becomes an integral part of EU policy. This includes a dedicated budget of €20 billion and binding financing commitments for the Member States in their ESF+ national programmes.

Second, an investments ecosystem for European children starting with a correct planning of the Next Generation EU funding.

With children bearing the brunt of so much of the pandemic’s blows, the Child Union should become a fundamental pillar in Europe’s recovery strategy. This requires re-calibrating National Recovery Plans towards the care services of Europe’s future generations.

An investment ecosystem for European children should build on the Child Guarantee, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, Structural Funds and national resources to enhance the effective delivery of quality and inclusive ECEC services for all, with a special focus on the most vulnerable children and families.

Third, guarantee equal access to quality and inclusive early childhood education and care for all. European law should ensure child rights and legal entitlements with universal and affordable public provisions for all and dedicated resources for disadvantaged and at-risk children.

Promoting quality and inclusiveness are key priorities.

This involves: providing teachers with decent salaries and training to equip Europe’s next generation with the 21st-century skills they need to succeed; strengthening children’s emancipation and their role as agents of change; facilitating the involvement and participation of parents and communities; capitalizing on the synergies that ECEC has with social protection and labour policies.

In fact, to tackle structural inequalities as risk factors for children’s development, income support measures for children, active labour market policies, particularly for female employment; decent minimum wages guaranteed by law or collective bargaining, and adequate gender-neutral parental leaves are decisive.

You can join the Call for a Child Union and find out more about the signatories here

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