Signs of change towards Social Europe?

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

A softening towards austerity has been hailed as a positive development in Europe lately. [Mike Baker/ Flickr]

Progress has been made on social values, through the Commission’s Autumn Package. Fintan Farrell and Sian Jones explain what has been done and what is still left to do.

Fintan Farrell is acting director of EAPN and Sian Jones is its policy coordinator.

On 16 November, the European Commission adopted the Autumn Package. EAPN and many other organisations and individuals have been pressing for a change of direction to a more Social Europe, including:

  • A shift in paradigm bringing an end to austerity policies and investing in a transformative social and economic agenda capable of delivering inclusive and sustainable development;
  • A clear social agenda based on rights and social investment;
  • An Integrated EU strategy and programme to fight poverty, ensuring access to quality jobs, services and social protection;
  • More democracy, including the fostering of effective participation of civil society organisations and the participation of people experiencing poverty.

Trends in global politics seem far from these demands so it has come as a welcome development that some positive signs can be found in the recently published Annual Growth Survey by the European Commission.

EAPN has followed closely EU economic and social policy for a long time now, particularly engaging with its members in the Europe 2020 strategy through the European Semester, so we know it is wise to be very cautious in welcoming some messages and actions like those highlighted in the AGS 2017 and Autumn Package.

We also know how distant these sighs are from the everyday life of the millions of people who carry the burden of poverty and inequality in Europe. However, we know also that when there is some positive response to our messages we need to acknowledge that, or we leave the initiative to those who may want to take us in a direction far from our key values.

We acknowledge there has been some progress in the Autumn Package. We would also highlight the intention to promote ‘social fairness’ and deliver more “inclusive growth….to achieve an economic recovery that benefits all, notably the weaker parts of our societies and strengthens fairness and the social dimension” that was in the material launching the package.

As positive elements we underline the decision by the Commission to not pursue a suspension of EU funding against Spain and Portugal, and a softening of the approach on austerity – putting more emphasis on flexibility and room for more expansionist polices, as positive signs of a change of a direction. Potentially positive elements also include the recognition of the need to tackle the high poverty rate (1 in 4 of the population) and high inequality rate.

The focus on social policy as a productive factor can be welcomed but social policy must first be about achieving social goals based on rights. The AGS also calls for progress on social standards – adequate minimum income systems and pensions, quality work, as well as support to universal access to health, rather than only a focus on cost efficiencies.

Tax systems are also expected to play a role in combating inequality, together with a new focus on the distributional impact of policies, which also could help to reduce inequality and poverty.

Although social investment isn’t specifically mentioned, the AGS calls to double the European Fund for Strategic Investment (ESIF) has a new proposal on investing in human capital and social infrastructure – particularly long-term care services, affordable and flexible childcare. The reference to achieving a smooth welcome for migrants including refugees is welcome but needs a big shift in practice to be credible.

However, the devil is often in the detail. With Stability and Growth remaining the overarching economic framework, the same 3 priorities as 2014 and 2015: 1) boosting investment 2) pursuing structural reforms and 3) ensuring responsible fiscal policies, and a major focus on ‘modernising social protection, flexibilising labour markets, expanding privatisation and liberalisation of services to promote the internal market, it is not clear what the overall impact on poverty and social rights is likely to be.

We are worried that the social elements could be ‘window-dressing’ with the reality being ‘business as usual’. We’re concerned at the lack of prominence for the Europe 2020 and the EU poverty reduction target and the absence of the need for an EU antipoverty strategy and programme to deliver on it.

The surprising omission of an explicit reference to the European Pillar of Social Rights – the major social initiative to come out of the Juncker Commission. We will be keenly monitoring developments in EU policy particularly through the European Semester to see whether this positive change is reflected.

We also urge the Commission to give priority to civil society engagement, as well as social partners, to generate ideas, knowledge and support for the building of a more Social Europe. In EAPN’s engagement with members in the European Semester, although some progress on participation has been made, dialogue with civil society is still too often a formal exercise, missing the opportunity to promote regular structured dialogue to help drive and monitor more effective policy solutions.

The message of the Commission to the recent European Meeting of people experiencing poverty ‘that their voice needs to be heard’ must be reflected in the way civil society is facilitated and supported to engage in this process at all levels.

We are still far from the paradigm shift needed. Europe faces enormous challenges and credibility gap with its citizens. The EU has to change direction, if it is to convince people that the EU is worth backing. EAPN will be looking for concrete signs that the new ‘social rights and standards approach’ will be given equal weight to economic concerns in the EU policies, and particularly in the European Semester this year.

It is also clear that we have a long way to go to achieve an EU Integrated strategy and programme to fight poverty. There is still a long way to go to invest in participation and reinvigorate democratic processes that are capable of healing our broken politics. But for now we cautiously welcome some signs of change and we will continue to work with all concerned for a Social Europe built on values of justice, solidarity and equality.

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