Fighting poverty: giving a European response to a European major issue
Antoine Conotte, Maxime Delrue, Arthur Lejeune et Charlotte Steenackers
One of the Europe 2020 goals is to have 20 million fewer people in or at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In its last report, Eurostat noted that the percentage of European citizens at risk of poverty only decreased by 0.1% between 2013 (24.5 % of Europeans) and 2014 (24.4 %). A quarter of the population still faces at least one of the following issues: income poverty, severe material deprivation, or low working intensity. Inequalities also persist between countries. 40% of Bulgarians and Romanians, as well as 36% of Greeks live at risk of poverty while this percentage remains below 17% in the Czech Republic (14.8%), the Netherlands (16.7%), and Sweden (16,9%).
Poverty goes much further than just people having trouble living a comfortable life. It is a vicious cycle feeding on inequality and on itself. The members of the European parliament (MEPs) thus stress the need for a multidimensional aproach to tackling poverty.
What is at stake?
Poverty first affects Europeans’ health, increasing their lack of access to the most basic medical care, healthy food and decent housing. Also, people with a lower income work in riskier than average environments, and can therefore be more exposed to precarious conditions adverse to their health. But poverty does not only affect the body. The mind suffers too. Inequalities leads towards feelings of anger and injustice, to which the children are especially vulnerable. Seeing their parents struggling affects their feeling of safety and their trust in our society. Furthermore their hopes and dreams are reduced to just focusing on surviving, as explained by Philine Scholze, Advisor on Employment and Social Affairs for The Greens in the European Parliament.
Poverty is also clearly gendered and affects women more than it affects men – a phenomenon also called the feminisation of poverty. Gender roles mean women are expected to care for children and stay at home. They have lower salaries (women earning on average 16.7% less than men) and can get discriminated against when they get pregnant. Career advancement is also harder for a woman. Joao Pimenta Lopes, MEP from the GUE/NGL
The situation of poverty is hard to get out of, because people who suffer from it are often in a situation of constant danger. In the past, we have seen riots and violence burst due to inequality and unfairness. The rise of poverty is a threat to the stability of our society. If one feels he has no place in a system, or cannot succeed, then he might turn against this system that he feels mistreated him. It also creates a strong division amongst citizens. What has the European Parliament done so far to tackle those challenges ?
The European Parliament’s main action to address poverty
The Resolution of 24 November 2015 on reducing inequalities with a special focus on child poverty is the most remarkable act from the Parliament’s current legislature on the issue. This non-legislative resolution is based on a report of Ines Cristina Zuber, MEP of the Parliamentary committee Employment and social affairs. Zuber’s report has brought a large majority together in the Parliament, since 82% voted for it.
The resolution urges the Commission to define a roadmap with the Member States, and to implement a three-pillar approach: access to resources, access to services and the inclusion of children. The report stressed out the differences between northern and southern member states, recommending that all Member States ensure to all children, of all social groups, the access to a free, public, and qualitative education. According to the Parliament, the right to have a free and universal education, access to healthcare and to social security systems is an essential condition to fight poverty. The Parliament also proposes to make the reduction of child poverty a core priority of the Annual Growth Survey, which outlines yearly priorities for the European Union and its Member States. It should be a key means to go further in the fight against poverty.
All these propositions of policies are no great surprises and have brought a large consensus in the Parliament. A strong political message has also been addressed to the Member States by referring to the austerity policies of the European Union: Member States cannot invest in the fight against poverty and reduce their deficit at the same time. “The European Parliament calls on the Commission to refrain from recommending reformulations and cuts in the public services of Member States, from promoting flexible labour relations and the privatisation of public services, which have led unequivocally to the weakening of the social rights of children”, the adopted resolution stated.
Joao Pimenta Lopes, MEP from the GUE/NGL and Philine Scholze, Advisor on Employment and Social Affairs for The Greens:
Austerity measures thus seem to be seen as a real obstacle by several political groups in the Parliament. The Commission responded to the Parliament with the example of Greece: they introduced, in partnership with the Greek government, a regime of guaranteed minimum income for the poorest families. In his orientations for the new Commission, Juncker claimed that “in the future, any support and reform programme [should go] not only through a fiscal sustainability assessment; but through a social impact assessment as well”. We are still waiting.
The Commission also promised to verify more closely that Member States are following its recommendation Investing in children: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage, through the European Platform for Investing in Children (REPIC). Nonetheless, it immediately reminded that the Council decided in 2010 that Member States are free to fix their own national objectives, taking the indicators that they judge most appropriate for them. An admission that the Commission is being fully restreined by the Member states.
Tackling poverty in Europe is indeed challenging mainly because each and every Member State has its own mechanisms to care about its citizens. EU competencies are strictly limited in social areas, which states definitely keep their hands on, confirms Philine Scholze. The Parliament doesn’t have much power on this issue; but neither does the Commission, apparently.