Striving for triple-A on social issues

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

Rates of poverty and social exclusion are high in Portugal, Greece and Spain. [Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr]

Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission has declared its intention to put social issues further up its agenda. Yet, the European Union and its member states need to focus on more than economic growth to foster social justice in Europe, argues Natália Mazotte.

Natália Mazotte is a Brazilian journalist currently residing in Spain. She blogs for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and leads two projects in Brazil, the School of Data and the chapter of Journalism++ in São Paulo.

“I want Europe to be dedicated to being triple-A on social issues, as much as it is to being triple-A in the financial and economic sense,” the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared last November upon receiving the EU Parliament’s support for his list of commissioners.

After an economic storm that ravaged Europe and called its integration project into question, the new team in charge of the European Union’s executive branch has indeed a great challenge to overcome, fighting growing social inequality throughout the continent.

New research points to an alarming concentration of wealth at the top of society. Currently, 46 percent of the world’s wealth is in the hands of one percent of its population. According to Eurostat, in 2013, 122.6 million people, or 24.5 percent of the population of the 28 EU countries, were at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Europe is expected to have nearly 150 million poor people by 2025.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s EU Social Justice Index finds that the reach and scope of social justice declined during the global financial crisis in the majority of EU member states. Only three countries, Poland, Germany and Luxembourg, have managed to improve significantly over the past years.

Social exclusion often leads to the disengagement of certain groups or to various forms of political extremism. This is a frightening sign for the future of the democratic values enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty.

So what needs to be done for us to take the Commission president at his word?

Despite the positive economic results and return to growth in most EU countries in recent years, the numbers that measure inequality rates are far less encouraging. The EU’s GINI research project shows a widening income gap between top earners and other workers across Europe. This means that only investing in growth and job creation, the top priorities of the Commission’s plan under Juncker, may not be enough to ensure a fair and sustainable turnaround for the continent.

Some authors claim that inequality and growth are intertwined and that high inequality can hinder social mobility. An increase in income inequality not only raises social and political but also economic concerns. On a similar note, the EU’s GUSTO project emphasises that among the 28 EU member states, the best performing countries in economic terms have a large welfare state that invests in people and satisfactorily protects them when needed.

The member states therefore need to find pro-growth policies that are also suitable for reducing inequality. This should include policies that promote access to education and the labour market as well as growth-friendly tax and transfer systems.

By contrast, the countries most affected by the crisis and the austerity measures it has entailed — especially Greece, Spain and Portugal — have ended up dismantling their social security systems and have consequently impaired their ability to invest in critical future-oriented policy areas, such as education or research and development. Socioeconomic strategies should thus not just aim at budgetary consolidation and the solving the debt crisis but also at combating social injustice.

Despite its urgency, fostering social justice is a complex matter and it becomes even more complex when applied to a group of states with heterogeneous social makeups. The diversity of the drivers of inequality, which require different responses, also aggravates the situation.

The European Union has an important role to play in this scenario. By setting priorities and common objectives, it can encourage states to move towards addressing the same social issues. The Europe 2020 strategy lists these priorities and objectives for 2014 to 2020. It has set a target of “promoting social inclusion, in particular through the reduction of poverty, by aiming to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and exclusion” by 2020.

For this to happen, European civil society will also need to push decision-makers to invest in ambitious and integrated social policies. Accordingly, raising popular awareness of developments in this area, as instruments such as the EU Social Justice Index do, is a key task in bringing the EU closer to its self-declared goals.

In its five-year mandate, Juncker’s Commission will need to reverse the discrepancies among the member states at the risk of undermining the foundations of European integration. The current unjust state of affairs must have a much more prominent place on the political agenda.

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