Today, 20 February, is World Social Justice Day. This is a good occasion to remind European policy makers that they cannot act as if they were exempt from concerns for the poor and for social justice, writes Jorge Nuño Mayer, Secretary General of Caritas Europa.
Jorge Nuño Mayer is the Secretary General of Caritas Europa, a network of 49 Caritas organisations in 46 European countries.
With recent data confirming that poverty is increasing, affecting 123 million or 24% of the European Union’s population, this is a vital concern.
The European Social model is eroding and the survival of social rights is at risk in the current political context. Recent political choices are jeopardising Europe’s social dimension, which is having an extremely negative impact on vulnerable populations.
Reducing pensions, closing hospitals, dismantling social welfare to the lowest model of support are political choices that are not conducive to providing long-term, sustainable solutions to moving Europe out of poverty and the crisis.
Indeed, the European Union needs a dynamic labour market. But certainly not at any social cost! European legislators must recognise that changes in working time legislation, new rules on atypical contracts, including super flexible contracts for youth, decentralising collective bargaining, and increasing VAT fiscal consolidation might boost the economy in the short-run. But this is also having a perverted long-term impact by contributing to impoverishing those already working, further increasing inequality, and negatively affecting health services and social protection schemes, all in the name of economics.
Civil society organisations and churches are confronting the impacts of these political choices in the daily interactions with and services offered to the poor. Meanwhile, we have all become witnesses to rising poverty, high unemployment rates, exclusion, mounting distress and despair affecting an increasing number of people after more than 6 years of economic crisis.
Imposed austerity measures are not delivering positive results toward the common good. Poor people are getting poorer. Inequalities are on the rise. More than one third of the population in five EU Member States are at risk of poverty or social exclusion (48% in Bulgaria, 40.4% in Romania 35.7% in Greece, 35.1% in Latvia, and 33.5% in Hungary), and 1 in 3 children are living in poverty in 14 of the 28 EU countries. When services are removed, vulnerable families at risk of poverty are more likely to remain impoverished, leading to a new phenomenon in Europe known as “generational poverty”. Europe clearly needs to change tack on austerity.
We are living in an unfair Europe, where social cohesion is fading and social risks are rising. Social welfare systems are being downsized and individuals and families are falling deeper into poverty. European leaders must wake up and dare to acknowledge that the increasing weakening of people’s trust in our political institutions goes hand in hand with the erosion of social rights and welfare and the belief in the European Project.
People’s discontent was made quite clear during the latest elections to the European Parliament, which marked a further drop in the level of voter participation and resulted in increased numbers of extremist parties. An economic crisis can increasingly evolve into a social and political crisis; the results of forthcoming elections in countries like the UK and France have the potential to trigger a shock-wave across Europe.
If governments don’t alter their positions now, Europe will remain at great risk for the long-term. Racism, xenophobia and the spread of hate are intensifying. Social unrest has risen by 12% in the last five years, higher than any other region of the world. This is why Europe’s response is no longer just about resolving economic challenges, but also about the future of Europe. There is still time to recognise the threat and respond. After all, as Pope Francis once said “the measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!”
Considering the wise words of Pope Francis, the EU and Member States have everything to gain by recognising their democratic responsibility and being conscious of the long-term impact of decisions they make now. Politicians have choices and it is time they act to tackle tax evasion and illicit financial flows, reallocate public expenditures, increase tax revenues, contributions, and invest in people to ensure that we can all live in dignity in just societies.