Strengthening Social Europe: This is no time for business as usual

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

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In November 2017, the proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights represented a decisive step towards reinforced upward convergence between Member States by putting fair and well-functioning labour markets and social protection systems at the heart of a more Social Europe. Jointly proclaimed by the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament at the Social Summit in Gothenburg (Sweden), we are now three years on and still waiting to see how the declaration will be put into action for the benefit of all those living in Europe and particularly those who face diverse and damaging social and economic risks – risks that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and have been exacerbated by it.

At the beginning of 2020, the European Commission presented its Communication “A strong social Europe for a just transition” that outlined how social policy will help deliver on the challenges and opportunities of today and presented new initiatives towards the EPSR implementation (e.g. a reinforced Youth Guarantee and the recent proposal for an EU framework on fair minimum wages). This also launched the development of an Action Plan to be published in 2021 and which is to be led by former Portuguese Labour Minister José António Vieira da Silva.

The ambition within the Pillar must be underpinned by a coherent policy framework and that is what we need to see from the proposed Action Plan. The European Commission should use its full political leverage to support progress on the principles of the Pillar without limiting itself to legislative measures in the policy areas – and principles – where this is possible. Together with funding, a lot can be achieved using hard as well as soft law instruments such as the Open Method of Coordination, policy monitoring and evaluation, as well as programmes and practices. This must include an emphasis on social services as the European Pillar of Social Rights cannot be implemented without well funded, high quality, accessible and affordable social services.

Social Services provide essential care and support to millions of people in Europe, serving children and young people at risk, older persons, persons with disabilities, people at risk of poverty, homeless persons, migrants or refugees, people suffering from domestic violence, and many others to live healthier, better, and more active lives. Most importantly, they help people to enjoy their human rights. Social services provide essential help to family or other carers, contributing to their employment and work-life balance opportunities. They are extremely important to tackling gender inequalities given the disproportionate share of women in providing family care. Social services are also essential to Europe’s social market economy. They help to create meaningful employment for 11 million workers, 5% of the total EU workforce, and with an increase of 24% in the last ten years[1].

As highlighted in a recent joint position paper released by the social services sector, the COVID-19 crisis continues to have a massive impact; both directly by the public health situation itself, as well as indirectly by the consequences of the pandemic on pre-existing challenges. Underfunding, staff shortages, unattractive wages are just a few of the pre-existing challenges the sector has to face. If the action plan for the EPSR fails to find answers to these pre-existing challenges, then the full implementation of its principles will be impossible. The economic and social impact of the crisis clearly leads to a higher demand for social services and this must also be addressed by the Action plan. The coronavirus crisis offers a must-seize opportunity for a paradigm shift to move towards an economy of wellbeing that puts people first and values the relevance of the social services sector for a functioning society and economy.

Social service workers have to work under immense pressure, at the same time social service providers are facing a threat regarding their financial sustainability to ensure continuity of the sector. Eurodiaconia has been actively advocating for measures to quickly address the gaps created by COVID-19 through the proposed Recovery Plan and the revised Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).

The European Union’s 1.8 trillion-euro investment plan hopes to kick start this recovery and the move to a more sustainable, fairer Europe. As drivers of inclusive economic growth, social care, and support services can hold the key to unlocking the EU’s objectives. But the sector itself needs the resources to recover from COVID-19 and so targeted support must be given to our sector.

Implementing the 20 Pillar principles holistically, in line with a person-centred approach to service needs, will make the most of the synergies and complementarities that can be established between different types of interventions and principles enshrined in it. Implementation should be based on the provision of quality services supported by adequate funding and underpinned by innovative design and implementation that maximise the positive transformative power of social interventions.

This calls for an enabling legal and financial framework where adequate resources match the needs and ambitions within the Pillar, making more relevant than ever the demand for enhanced social investment. This will ensure the right volumes and quality of resources needed to secure sustainable provision of quality services ahead of structural societal challenges such as ageing, digitalisation, the development of “new vulnerable groups” because of COVID-19, or evolving family patterns which result in increased care demands that require the recruitment and retention of quality staff that fulfils the sector’s proven potential to create jobs. We should go out of the hierarchical model that always brings first economic stability and last social policies; they go hand-to-hand. That means we need to invest in financing those services and improving the policies that support them. The Action Plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights is the opportunity to do so. Today, Eurodiaconia sets out its proposal for an Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, as a part of its response to the European Commission’s public consultation.

This is no time for business as usual. Three years on the need to strengthen the social dimension of the European Union remains. The corona pandemic must not be an occasion to postpone or even abandon the ambitions to further strengthen Social Europe; on the contrary, it must lead to these plans being pursued even more vigorously and with speed – Europe is waiting.

[1] Social Employers, 2019: Social Services Workforce in Europe: State of Play and Challenges

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