Poverty and social exclusion has continued to rise with the biggest increases being seen in material deprivation and in those who experience poverty even though they are working – says Heather Roy
On March, 5 the European Commission launched the first step in reviewing the Europe 2020 strategy. The mid-term review is designed to take stock of the progress made so far in achieving the goals and targets of Europe 2020 and to set the pace for possible re-enforcement or adaptation of the strategy. As people continue to struggle with the impact of the financial and economic crisis, we need the European Union Institutions and member states to honour the commitments they made in 2010.
When the European Commission launched the Europe 2020 strategy in 2010, the recognition that inclusive growth had to be part of any successful strategy was welcomed by a wide array of stakeholders. The subsequent adoption of the poverty target – reducing the number of citizens living in poverty to 20 million by the end of 2020 from around 80 million now – and the flagship initiative of the European Platform Against Poverty – signalled that finally social cohesion and the reduction of poverty were being taken seriously. The social impact of the financial and economic crisis was increasingly apparent and civil society organisations such as Eurodiaconia were beginning to see the impact on public and social services as well as on the people who need to use them.
Unfortunately, Europe 2020 has not lived up to its promise of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Financial and economic policy has been agreed and implemented without proper consideration of its social impact. Poverty and social exclusion has continued to rise with the biggest increases being seen in material deprivation and in those who experience poverty even though they are working. Additionally, poverty and exclusion among certain groups such as Roma and migrants is a lot higher than majority groups in some member states. Youth unemployment figures are unacceptable and the reduction in funding for essential public, social and healthcare services is having a detrimental effect on the quality and impact of these services. The development of economic and fiscal policy such as the two-pack, six-pack and so on has pushed the Europe 2020 strategy to the background and along with it any real commitment to inclusive growth.
The mid-term review of Europe 2020 must involve a critical reflection on the priority given to inclusive growth and how it will ensure an improvement in the living standards of people. The commission has launched several initiatives to contribute to inclusive growth. The Social Investment Package rightly stresses that good social policy as having a strong and sustainable return on investment in wellbeing, inclusion and employment. The increasing priority given in the European Social Fund to poverty and social exclusion is also welcomed along with the newly adopted Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived. There has also been a desire to have an increasing social dimension to the European Monetary Union.
However this is not enough. The inclusive growth pillar has been weakened if not almost erased from the general political discourse. The prevailing rhetoric from both the European Council and the commission has been to focus on economic growth rather than inclusive growth and to see social cohesion as a by-product of such economic prioritisation. Inclusive growth has not been a political priority for the EU and the mid-term review of Europe 2020 must reverse this.
There is a concern that because of the lack of progress the Europe 2020 strategy could be re-orientated to the former Lisbon Strategy priorities of growth and jobs. The incoming College of Commissioners will need to consider the mid-term review results and propose a way forward. The Europe 2020 strategy should remain the guiding approach and the new College and related Commission services must ensure that inclusive growth is re-instated as a key driver of EU policy over the next six years. The rising rates of poverty and exclusion will not be reduced by economic growth and employment alone but by clear strategies that ensure effective social policies that are enabling and empowering rather than punitive and restricting. Such an approach requires investment in social welfare and social services and requires member states to make a real commitment to reducing poverty and exclusion and enabling social cohesion.
The mid-term review of Europe 2020 cannot conclude with business as usual. This approach has not worked for the first four years of the strategy and will not work for the 120 million people who face poverty and exclusion every day. Investment in inclusive growth in a smart and sustainable way must be prioritised in Europe 2020 for the wellbeing of the people.
Heather Roy is Secretary General of Eurodiaconia – the European network for Christian-based social services and social justice organisations