October 16, 2014 will see European ministers for employment and social affairs travel to Luxembourg for an Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) meeting. Among other items on the agenda, ministers will participate in the mid-term review of the Europe 2020 Strategy. This mid-term review signifies a crucial fork in the road for the EU’s approach to the Strategy’s ambitious targets set out in 2010: will ministers seize the opportunity to influence reform of the failing Strategy by taking urgent actions and introducing concrete policy proposals?;or will members states ultimately decide to turn a blind eye to the dire reality of the EU’s social situation and continue to prioritise economic and financial policies without consideration of their social impact? Social Platform – the largest platform of European rights and value-based NGOs working in the social sector – has contacted ministers urging them to take the first path and has put together recommendations based on our position paper that, if followed, can help to bring Europe 2020 out of its downward spiral.
Firstly, the social objectives of Europe 2020 need to be reprioritised. The Strategy’s headline targets include bringing 20 million Europeans out of poverty and social exclusion, getting 75% of 20-64 year olds into employment and increasing the number of 30-34 year olds in possession of higher education qualifications by 9%. While recognising that the employment, poverty reduction and education targets can reinforce each other, it is important to ensure that all targets are addressed separately without prioritising one over the others. Unfortunately, we are currently seeing high numbers of people in work living in poverty; a recent Eurostat report found that an estimated 8.9% of the working age EU population experienced this phenomenon in 2013. The EU and member states need to use all means available to them – the European Semester, the Annual Growth Survey, National Reform Programmes and Country Specific Recommendations – to outline concrete actions for achieving the employment, education and poverty headline targets of Europe 2020.
Secondly, EPSCO and Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) need to develop their cooperation to ensure that social policies are enabled – not undermined – by economic and financial policies. For example, Country Specific Recommendations on economic reforms contradict Country Specific Recommendation on poverty. Putting EPSCO and ECOFIN on an equal footing in the decision making process and encouraging better dialogue between the two would help avoid similar situations in the future.
Thirdly, ministers should use the mid-term review of the Europe 2020 Strategy as an opportunity to recognise and reverse rising inequalities in Europe. The EU-funded GINI Project (Growing Inequalities’ Impacts) identified a thirty year trend of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. Indeed, on average the top 20% earned 5.1 times as much income as the bottom 20% in 2012, and the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion in the EU increased from 114 million in 2009 to over 124 million in 2012. The GINI Project goes as far as suggesting that the EU targets on reducing poverty put forward as part of Europe 2020 should be legally binding on all member states. As a first step, Social Platform asks ministers to put in place an additional headline target on reducing inequalities, which would complement – rather than replace – the existing target on poverty reduction. Such a step would reinforce the floundering inclusive growth pillar of the Strategy, and would help to ensure the success of the other headline targets.
Fourthly, and finally, the ministers attending the EPSCO meeting must insist on the safeguarding of budget lines affecting the social dimension, such as shielding such budget lines from austerity measures and reforms put in place to tackle budget deficits across the EU. For example, investments in adequate social protection systems – an integral aspect of social investment – need to be maintained and even improved; they must not fall foul of ill-conceived economic and financial policies introduced in member states.
These recommendations represent a lifejacket for the drowning vessel that is the Europe 2020 Strategy. No one can deny that the Strategy is currently failing; the promise of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth has been left at the wayside in favour of rhetoric of austerity and the repeated introduction of economic and financial policies that in no way take into account the social implications of their implementation. Decision makers must stand by the Strategy and not bow under the pressure of the task ahead. The aspirations of the Strategy remain – indeed, it is needed now more than ever. Europe 2020 can be resuscitated; it is up to EU ministers to decide whether to administer the kiss of life or the kiss of death to this once celebrated Strategy.