Europe of tomorrow will inherit the children of today

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

Roma teen, with refugee advert. Berlin, November 2015. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

On Universal Children’s Day, Jana Hainsworth argues that EU policy must keep children at its heart, from ending child poverty in the EU to dealing with the migrant crisis.  

Jana Hainsworth is the Secretary General of Eurochild.

As Europe comes to terms with last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, the spotlight is on how our leaders respond. The darkness that shrouds the continent is largely a consequence of historical short-sighted decisions driven by fear, greed or power, or simply an inability to understand the bigger picture. The first year of the European Commission has been marked by a succession of crises: the threatened Grexit, the influx of migration and refugees, the sluggish economic recovery, and now horrific acts of terrorism. Now, more than ever, we need leadership that shows courage, vision, and determination to protect and promote basic universal values.

Our leaders often claim to be acting in the interest of future generations.  But there are few, if any, leaders who give political priority to today’s children. They seem to disregard how children’s present life experiences will determine our collective future. Universal Children’s Day, celebrated on 20 November, is an occasion to take stock and recalibrate our priorities.

Every single day there an estimated 900 child asylum seekers enter Europe. They are the lucky ones. Others perish on the way. We have a crisis of empathy as EU leaders focus on keeping people out, rather than protecting those in need. The outpouring of sympathy provoked by the image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach was short lived and failed to turn the tide of repression and indifference. The horrific events of the Paris attacks last Friday (13 November) must never be allowed to fuel anti-migrant and refugee sentiment. For hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war, Europe offers the only safe haven. Children, who make up half of migrants and refugees, are too often only seen as dependents, not as fully-fledged human beings with rights. Children are in need of protection, but they also have individual agency that needs to be nurtured and respected.

Another crisis that casts a shadow on Europe’s future is pervasive and persistent child poverty. Even in countries showing tentative signs of economic recovery, child poverty remains stubbornly high. Take Spain, for instance, where one in three children – or 2.6 million – are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Growing up in poverty negatively impacts on a child’s health and education outcomes and ultimately their ability to fulfil their potential. Poverty is often associated with marginalisation and lack of opportunity. It can undermine self-worth and sense of agency. The upcoming Dutch EU Presidency has made tackling poverty a priority of its chairmanship, and, at least on paper, the EU’s commitment to lift 20 million people out of poverty by 2020 remains intact. However the EU’s macro-economic governance tools, if anything, lend support to member states’ austerity-driven welfare reforms, which are dismantling crucial safety nets for vulnerable children and families.

It is not for lack of international legal and policy instruments that we are unable to protect children and their rights. The new Sustainable Development Goals offer clear direction on improving life for children today and tomorrow by addressing poverty, nutrition, health and education. The soon to be adopted Council of Europe five-year strategy on children’s rights will focus governmental efforts on five priorities: tackling poverty and inequality, promoting child participation, preventing violence, promoting child friendly justice, and children and digital media. The EU should put its weight behind these regional and global commitments, enabling member state governments to be more efficient by connecting international and regional instruments.

At EU level, the 2013 Recommendation on Investing in Children provides comprehensive, child-rights based policy guidance. The EU governance tools and structural funding were supposed to reinforce its implementation, but in reality, it has slipped down the priority list and there has been weak follow-up.

Europe is deflecting simultaneous crises. How society views and treats its children is not a marginal issue for specialists and child rights activists. It needs to be at the very heart of how leaders respond to these multiple crises. Fear, extremism, poverty and marginalisation can only be tackled through long-term and consistent political prioritisation of children, not as passive recipients of support but as active agents of change.

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