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Europe’s future is social

Are we on-board Juncker’s ship now that it has the wind in its sails?

The European Commission President was certainly upbeat in his State of the Union speech last week, and he laid out some ambitious, some would say unrealistic, plans for the future.

Working for a European network of civil society organisations united by a common commitment to realise the rights of children, I identify with President Juncker’s repeated reference to a European Union based on values. For example, his preferred ‘sixth scenario’ for the future of Europe is one based on freedom, equality and rule of law.

But when he illustrated his understanding of equality, and later, when he went on to explain his vision for the European Pillar of Social Rights, it feels that something is amiss, and it feels very worrisome.

The EU might be in the “fifth year of economic recovery” but painting such a positive outlook will ring hollow to large parts of the European population. Years of austerity have taken a huge toll on social solidarity. Poverty among working people is on the increase, whilst cuts in social and housing benefits mean many families with children are struggling to make ends meet. 

We have high hopes that the European Pillar of Social Rights might help redress the balance, and send a clear message that strong social protection systems are an investment not a cost. But we are increasingly concerned that the ‘European Social Standards Union’ envisioned by Juncker takes a very narrow perspective, basically focusing on employment and the labour market alone.

Equality is about human dignity for all. It’s about the social and economic rights to which everyone is entitled, and to which all EU Member States have committed through international human rights treaties.  The Pillar has a specific principle on protecting children from poverty, but at a time when poverty affects more than 1 in 4 children in the EU, will it be enough to catalyse policy reform and investment in Member States? We should not forget that all Member States have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which remains our point of reference on what governments need to do to tackle child poverty and social exclusion. The Pillar does not create new rights, it should reinforce application of existing rights.

This might all sound utopic, but we are collecting evidence that a rights-based approach to policy making and budget planning makes economic sense too.  Our research on measuring the social and economic value of investing in children ‘Childonomics’ is showing that investments in strong universal services and benefits that build greater social cohesion do pay off in the long-term.  Ultimately it’s about political will and looking beyond immediate electoral cycles.

We have windows of opportunity. The Sustainable Development Goals, whilst sadly missing from the State of the European Union speech last week, offer a universal framework that can guide the EU’s post-2020 agenda. And the Social Summit scheduled in Gothenburg later this year could still prove me wrong. The proclamation on the European Pillar of Social Rights must clearly show that the EU really is concerned about the social and economic rights of all people in the EU, inside and outside the labour market, of working age or not. Then we might be more convinced that our leaders are truly committed to a Union based on equality and human rights.

Jana Hainsworth, Secretary General of Eurochild