Poverty in Europe is getting worse, not better

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

The poorest 40% share less than 1% of the wealth in Europe. [Michael Coghlan/Flickr]

Member states have committed to lifting 20 million people out of poverty by 2020. But this has been hard to do in a time of economic recession, writes Georges Dassis.

Georges Dassis is the President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The record number of entries for the 2015 Civil Society Prize of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on the theme of “Combating poverty” shows the problem is getting worse, not better. Nearly one in four EU citizen (about 120 million people) faces the risk of poverty. The European Union member states are committed to lifting 20 million people out of poverty by 2020.

But this has been hard to do in a time of economic recession. Member states are unwilling or unable to make the necessary resources available from the limited budgets at their disposal. Often the task on the ground of supporting needy families, the deprived and the homeless falls to civil society or voluntary organisations who are represented at EU level by the EESC.

Despite their efforts, they can make only a limited impact. One of the aims of the Civil Society Prize, now in its seventh edition, is to highlight one aspect of the Committee’s own priority agenda each time and to raise its visibility among practitioners, the EU institutions, member government and other stakeholders as well as among the general public.

In recent years, the Committee, set up as a consultative body under the Rome treaty to defend citizens’ interests at EU level, has taken several initiatives in favour of poverty eradication. It has supported programmes agreed by the EU and by member states to develop a so-called inclusion strategy or to put in place a European platform against poverty and social exclusion, even if these have experienced only limited progress.

The EESC has submitted formal “opinions” to the EU institutions. These have targeted issues like poverty reduction and child poverty, measures to reduce social exclusion, dealing with the growing problem of the working poor, the introduction of a minimum income at European level, fairer taxation, the need to include social measures when planning and implementing EU policies in areas like the single market and the single currency. It criticises directly the notion, widespread among cash-strapped governments, that employment growth alone, without accompanying social measures, can drive poverty alleviation.

After my election as EESC president on 7 October, I promised that my mandate would be entirely devoted to the people of Europe. “We intend to mobilise all the forces of civil society to make the European Union attractive and more present in the daily lives of Europeans. First there is a need to alleviate extreme poverty and invest in youth employment, infrastructure projects, research and innovation, something that needs to be done in Europe on a massive scale. Europe must not be equated with a race to the bottom, but to the top.”

Not surprising then that “Combating poverty” was chosen as the theme for the Committee’s Civil Society Prize in 2015. The €50,000 prize is awarded for “excellence in civil society initiatives”. Each edition covers a different aspect of the EESC’s activities and concerns. The theme of the 2014 prize was initiatives by civil society organisations in favour of the integration of Roma communities.

The 106 entries in the 2015 competition came from contestants in all member countries of the European Union except Cyprus, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden. The deadline for submissions was 10 September. The final winner and runners-up will be announced by the EESC at an award ceremony on December 10 in Brussels.

My frank comment on the significance of the record level of participation this year was part of an outspoken interview in which I gave an assessment of the scope of the 2015 competition and its expected results, while calling for a more concerted effort at both policy and practical level between the EESC, European institutions and national governments.

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