On 21 March the European Commission organized the Annual Convention for Inclusive Growth, which brought together more than 300 representatives of civil society organisations and policy makers from 35 countries. This year the Convention focused on the European Pillar of Social Rights and included debates on issues such as active inclusion, social investment, tackling poverty, the social dimension of the EU semester and the integration of refugees. The overall aim was to discuss “what the EU can do to ensure that all citizens reap the benefits of truly inclusive growth. This includes fighting against poverty, reducing unemployment and making sure no one is left behind.
European governments are experiencing high pressures on public finance and macroeconomic imbalances between countries. The work on the European Social Pillar is part of solutions presented by the Commission for a deeper and fairer Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). This will apply primarily to Eurozone countries but others in the EU Single Market may also adopt measures. Tackling poverty and other social issues are integrated in the agenda for economic development and growth. Participants at the Convention confirmed the need to strengthen the social models of the EU. However the Commission’s rhetoric that ‘poverty hampers growth’ was different from the perspective of the civil society organizations, which place social rights as stand-alone, core objectives of European societies.
Social inequalities have persisted and increased. In 2014, every fourth citizen of the EU, i.e. 122 million people, was at risk of poverty or social exclusion. There are also significant differences between EU Member States, with more than a third of the population at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Romania (40.2 %), Bulgaria (40.1 %) and Greece (36.0 %), and much less in Finland (17.3 %), Sweden (16.9 %), and the Czech Republic (14.8 %). Almost every fifth young person under the age of 25 (i.e. 4.4 million people) and almost 21.7 million men and women (8.9 % of the labour force) are unemployed in the EU. Moreover, 26 million children in the EU living in poverty are at higher risk of poor health, not finishing school, worsened relationships with peers and unable to reach their full potential in life.
EuroHealthNet’s experience and research work shows that policies which help re-integrate vulnerable groups into the labour market result in important returns. Improvements in the quality of work, particularly for people in lower occupational groups, contribute to a significantly healthier and more productive Europe. Promoting affordable, high quality pre-natal and early years services alongside supportive employment policies, and parenting and family support services is crucial for fighting child poverty and disadvantage plus health and social inequities. Integrated and holistic approaches are needed to tackle many European challenges, including health inequalities and sustainable development.
A new Pillar of Social Rights could bring a better balance between the social and economic objectives of the EU and add a social dimension to the EU semester. The EU Semester process originally focused mostly on economic governance. In the past years, it has been increasingly applied to address unemployment and support social performance in the Member States. The use of the European Structural and Investment Funds has also been in line with the EU Semester and the country-specific recommendations. Better correlation and clarity is needed on how the European Pillar should fit in and correlate with other EU policy instruments. How will the Social Pillar be aligned with the EU Semester and Country specific recommendations (CSRs)? How will it be supported by the European Investment Funds, or linked with the EU 2020 strategic objectives after the mid-term review findings and recommendations?
Participants at the Convention raised questions on the legal nature of the Pillar and requested more clarity on implementation, as well as defined targets to support real change. How would monitoring and accountability processes be addressed? To what extent could benchmarks be set for Member States to ensure their accountability? With a consultation process that will last almost a year, the lack of a clearly set outcome might weaken the engagement of stakeholders and create false expectations.
At the Convention, the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Thyssen praised the unique European social model. She reiterated that “These principles (of the Pillar) are considered essential for labour markets and welfare systems that are fair, inclusive and that function properly. They take account of economic and social considerations, of the wide diversity of situations in Europe, as well as the changing realities on the ground.”
EuroHealthNet is ready to engage in the consultations on the Pillar and provide the necessary evidence to help respond to current social and economic challenges plus support health and well-being for all.
A report of this event is available here.
8 Goldblatt P, Siegrist J, Lundberg O, Marinetti C, Farrer L & Costongs C (2015). Improving health equity through action across the life course: Summary of evidence and recommendations from the DRIVERs project. Report produced as part of the DRIVERS For Health Equity project, http://health-gradient.eu/. Brussels: EuroHealthNet