Social justice index reveals ‘highly explosive situation’ in Europe

Anti-capitalist graffiti. Berlin, December 2012. [Joel Schalit]

The next European Commission must step up efforts to tackle social justice in the EU, as the economic imbalance between member states intensified during the crisis, warns the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

According to the German think tank’s Social Justice Index for 2014, which compares the 28 member states across six indicators – poverty prevention, equitable education, labour market access, social cohesion and non-discrimination, health, as well as intergenerational justice – equality varies widely across the EU.


Growing gap

“The gap between participation opportunities in the still-wealthy countries of northern Europe and in the crisis-struck southern nations has thus significantly increased,” the think tank said.

“This is a highly explosive situation with regard to societal cohesion and social stability within the EU. Should these social divisions persist for some time, or even worsen further, this will endanger the future viability of the entire European integration project,” it added.

While the Index shows that there’s still a high level of social inclusion in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, social injustice in countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Hungary has increased since 2009.

Though the Nordic countries, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, as well as the fourth-ranked Netherlands, score particularly well in the areas of poverty prevention, labour market access, social cohesion and non-discrimination, there’s room for improvement.

For example, these countries lack equal labour market access opportunities for migrants. Sweden and Finland’s efforts to combat relatively high rates of youth unemployment have also not been successful. In Sweden, 23.5% of young people are unemployed, along with 19.9% in Finland.

Greece at the bottom

Greece, which is at the bottom of the ranking, struggles with both a youth unemployment rate of nearly 60%, a rapid increase in the risk of poverty particularly among children and youth, a health care system badly undermined by austerity measures, discrimination against minorities as a result of strengthened radical political forces, and an enormous mountain of debt that represents a mortgage on the future of coming generations.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung said these prospects represent a significant danger to Greece’s political and social stability.

“These developments illustrate that the cuts induced by the crisis are not administered in a balanced way throughout the population,” the think tank said. 

Alongside the North-South divide, the analysis also shows the growing imbalance between generations. For example, young people are much harder hit by social injustice than those who are older. At the moment, 28% of the EU’s youth population are threatened by poverty or social exclusion.

>> Read: Piketty: Electing the EU Commission president is ‘not enough’

European leaders have stated that the priorities for the next five years include a commitment to step up the fight against youth unemployment, tackling abuses in member states’ welfare systems, ensuring that social protection regimes are fair for the future, and better management of migration.

Reducing the number of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion is one of the key targets of the 'Europe 2020' strategy for growth and jobs.

Those include:

  • lifting at least 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion
  • ensuring that 75% of those aged 20-64 are in employment
  • at least 40% of young people earn a third level education degree

In October 2013, the European Commission proposed taking further steps by adding a "social scoreboard" as to the list of indicators already being monitored by the Commission as part of its annual scrutiny of national budget deficits and economic imbalances.

>> Read: Commission floats ‘ideas’ to deepen the EU’s social side

New social indicators in the scoreboard include:

  • The overall unemployment level and its evolution
  • The youth unemployment rate and the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET rate)
  • The real gross disposable income of households
  • The percentage of the working age population at risk of poverty
  • income inequalities as measured by comparing the richest 20% of the population with the poorest 20% (the S80/S20 ratio).

>> Read: European Semester: First-ever EU ‘social indicators’ fail to impress

  • 6 Oct.: EU leaders meet in Milan to discuss growth and jobs

NGOs and think tanks

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