EU Social Fund brings progress despite low expectations

The ESF has had a positive impact on keeping young people in education in Bulgaria. [Sjors Provoost/Flickr]

The European Social Fund has reached half of all EU workers and helped 10 million citizens find jobs. Contrary to the popular wisdom, the social situation in Europe is improving. EURACTIV France reports.

The EU is known for imposing budgetary constraints and pushing liberalisation in Europe’s economies. It is rarely associated with social progress. Now, the European Commission has begun to address this image problem.

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It intends to do this mainly by highlighting the positive impact of the European Social Fund (ESF), the oldest of the EU’s redistribution programmes. The ESF was followed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Cohesion Fund.

According to statistics published on Thursday (5 January), the FSE helped some 10 million Europeans find jobs between 2007 and 2014, at a cost of €115 billion. 21.1 million EU citizens are currently unemployed.

This detailed and highly complex investigation was carried out by the European Commission, using information from the people concerned, coupled with macroeconomic models.

Of the 232 million EU citizens in employment in 2015, almost 100 million directly benefitted from the FSE. The biggest beneficiaries of the fund were women (52%) and young people (32%).

The ESF also appears to have had a positive effect on the most vulnerable populations, like migrants, disabled people and members of marginalised communities, such as the Roma.

Certain countries also gained more than others from the scheme. In Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member state, the ESF’s programme to keep young people in education has had a noticably positive impact.

Variable results from one country to another

But the results of the European Social Fund have not all been positive. It is put to good use in some countries, but not always those that need it most.

Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, for example, have only used a very small part of the fund available to them to promote jobs.

What is more, the diversity of projects and objectives supported by the ESF makes the real effect of EU-funded programmes on jobs difficult to evaluate.

And the programmes assessed as part of the ESF include those co-financed by the EU, those that received EU funding for a determined period of time, mobility, childcare and education support. The FSE delivered the best results in countries with less developed social systems.

Finally, the study highlighted the issue of harmonisation: the EU adds much less value to the countries with the most advanced social systems, like France, than it does to some others. In the long term, harmonisation will bring all the social systems towards an average level that is likely to be lower than that of the most advanced countries.

An improving situation

Along with other recent social statistics, like the report on Employment and Social Development in Europe 2016, this study paints a positive picture of the progress made by European countries in recent years.

The economic recovery and the stabilisation of unemployment have also led to greater stability among other indicators, such as poverty and inequality.

Since 2013, the risk of poverty has also fallen everywhere in Europe. With the notable exception of Greece and Italy, the share of the population suffering from extreme deprivation has also declined sharply.

Marianne Thyssen, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, said, "Today's evaluation proves that the European Social Fund makes a real difference in the lives of Europeans. It is our main instrument to invest in human capital. Thanks to European support, millions of people have found a job, improved their skills or found their way out of poverty and social exclusion. It is solidarity at its best."

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