The Belgian Presidency has said it will keep social issues high on the EU agenda in the coming six months, with NGOs hoping the country will ensure that social protection is safeguarded amid a proliferation of austerity budgets announced across Europe.
Belgium has traditionally been one of the EU's more vocal member states in highlighting social issues, and the recently adopted 'Europe 2020' blueprint, which will govern EU growth strategies for the coming decade, contains unprecedentedly strong social pledges, including a high-profile commitment to reduce poverty (EURACTIV 08/06/10).
However, the prevailing economic climate in Europe is likely to provide obstacles, experts said. As EU member states bring in tough austerity budgets, severe cuts in public – and social – spending are likely to hamper Belgian ambitions.
This point was emphasised earlier this month by Belgian State Secretary for Social Integration Philippe Courard, who called for economic growth to be balanced with social protection for all EU citizens, particularly those at risk of poverty.
However, given that Belgian politicians, currently in negotiations to form a new government (EURACTIV 24/06/10), may well bring in tough austerity measures themselves in the coming months, it may prove difficult for them to push an ambitious social package at EU level if they are not "practising what they're preaching" at home, Connie Reuter, president of the Social Platform of European NGOs, told EURACTIV.
Belgium's success or failure in striking this balance will define its social agenda, Reuter argued, adding that a truly ambitious presidency must call for social as well as fiscal consolidation.
This point was echoed by Fintan Farrell, director of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN), who told EURACTIV that if the Belgians do push such an ambitious line, they are likely to meet stiff resistance from member-state governments who "haven't understood" the need for this balance.
The debate is likely to come to a head in a number of key policy areas, notably on the question of social services provision in the internal market.
There is a clear risk, argued Reuter, that the Commission and member states will increasingly view services of general interest as a bottleneck to completing the single market, and push for the austerity axe to fall on them.
However, the Belgian Presidency may choose to adopt the findings of the Monti Report (EURACTIV 11/05/10) as the basis for taking a different approach, pushing for a more "level playing field" which recognises the particularity of social services, particularly in terms of public procurement rules, Reuter said.
Strong second half to 2010 year against poverty
The Belgian Presidency coincides with the second half of the 2010 European year on combating poverty and social exclusion, a fact that is likely to prove significant in shaping a number of Belgian initiatives.
Initiatives mooted for the coming six months include the push for a framework directive on minimum income, as well as prominent conferences on the themes of homelessness and child poverty.
"It is very important that the presidency produces a strongly-worded document at the end of the 2010 year," argued Farrell, as this would ensure continuity for the strategies put in place during the year.
However, proposals for a minimum wage are likely to face steep resistance from EU countries with conservative governments in place, not to mention those with an opt-out on social policy, like Denmark and the UK.
Licia Ronzulli, an Italian MEP from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest in Parliament, said "it is not only through policies aiming to propose a minimum income that we will reduce the phenomenon of poverty in Europe".
In her opinion, social inclusion and active employment strategies are preferable, and should respect member states' powers on social matters.
Making sense of poverty reduction targets
The question of poverty reduction is likely to remain highly visible.
Following a high-profile and highly divisive struggle, EU member states ground out an agreement on poverty reduction targets as part of the Europe 2020 strategy in June 2010 (EURACTIV 08/06/10).
However, it will fall to the Belgian Presidency to examine the nitty-gritty details of how this target will work in practice. Under the terms of the final agreement, EU countries have three options for measuring the percentage of their population living in poverty or social exclusion.
Producing concrete and reliable figures and subsequent targets based on these figures is likely to prove a major headache for the Belgians, who will require all their famed powers of consensus-building to find agreement among member states, European Commission sources said.