The EU must not fail for the third time to tackle poverty, unemployment and social exclusion

Posted on Wednesday, 17 November 2021
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Social Justice Ireland's Annual Policy Conference, beginning at 10am today, will address the topic 'Social Rights for All? Delivering on the European Pillar of Social Rights'.
The EU must not fail for the third time to tackle poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. Twelve years on from the last major shock, and after seven years of continuous growth, the first year of Covid-19 has seen the European Union confront 14.9 million people unemployed of whom 5.8 million are long-term unemployed, and 84.5 million people living in poverty, of whom over 18.7 million are children. This is the context in which the European Union must deliver Social Rights for All.

Strong on Rhetoric, Weak on Delivery

The Lisbon Strategy and the Europe 2020 Strategy, each of which was 10 years in duration, did not have the positive impact on social policy that was expected.  The failure of these strategies to reduce poverty substantially and meet targets on employment and training is particularly concerning. The European Union is strong on rhetoric but weak on delivery where the social aspects of policy are concerned.  Failure to reduce poverty and long-term unemployment and improve access to quality services, will have major implications for the future of the EU as it will strengthen the growing conclusion that it is not a democratic project but is, rather, focused on delivering outcomes that favour the economically powerful.

A strong response based on the European Social Model is required.  This response must be based on investment in a sustainable future, in our social and human capital.  The European response to the current situation must be focused on protecting people across the lifecycle, young and old, men and women, those with an income and those with no incomes.  If Europe is serious about a fair recovery, decarbonising the economy and preparing for digital and technological transformation then the European Social Model must be strengthened by a new social contract that treats our environment, society and economy equally.


Social Rights in Europe

The European Pillar of Social Rights, which sets out the goals of the European Union to 2030 could provide the foundations of a new social contract for Europe.  A more integrated social dimension across the European Union is required to ensure the European Social Model can meet the challenges of new realities and repair the damage to social cohesion across the Union caused by the last crisis.  The European Pillar of Social Rights, if delivered, could support a strong social Europe that is fair, inclusive and full of opportunity.

The delivery of the European Pillar of Social Rights will be challenging.  Europe is not on track to meet the targets set out in the Europe 2020 Strategy, and now it must deliver on the targets set out in the European Pillar of Social Rights whilst supporting a fair recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and meeting the ambitious climate targets it has set itself to 2030.

If we are reach the targets on employment, poverty and education set out in the European Pillar of Social Rights, then we must ensure a minimum social floor under everyone in society.  To this end policy makers must examine alternatives and develop a social welfare and support system that can adapt to changing realities and withstand future shocks.  Minimum income schemes, the Living Wage, Basic Income schemes, the changing nature of work, adequate investment, access to quality services are all areas that should be part of a new and better European Social Model. 

Social Rights in Ireland

Following the crash of 2008, we saw the damage that ignoring these rights can do to societies, the environment and even the economies that austerity policies were intended to protect. But it was the poorest and most vulnerable who paid the highest price. The risk of poverty or social exclusion affected 1.01 million people in Ireland in 2019. This still equates to one in every five people in Ireland at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and these figures are pre-Covid.  While Ireland has one of the lower rates in the EU, in a relatively wealthy country such as Ireland, this cannot be acceptable.

Social Justice Ireland recognises that poverty is never just about income, but it is always about income. Ireland currently has no clear, comprehensive strategy to tackle poverty, social exclusion and vulnerability. While Government can itemise which individual national roads are to be built or upgraded, it has not even tried to outline a real and effective pathway towards reducing poverty and social exclusion. Its actions clearly show Government has failed, to date, to commit to leaving nobody behind, a key concept of the 2030 Strategy.

Looking at how to deliver social rights in Ireland, Social Justice Ireland have a number of proposals in the areas of income, work, and service-provision, including:

  • Prioritise Investment: Large-scale, investment programmes are needed to ensure a sustainable and inclusive recovery from the current crisis which operate in job-intensive areas and assist growth as well as social and infrastructural deficits.
  • Strengthen Welfare Systems: Government needs to introduce social protection schemes that are more resilient and ensure equal access to services.
  • Adopt Effective Labour Market Measures: Activation measures in the wake of the pandemic must not be implemented in a way that removes income security and increases in-work poverty.
  • Tackle Low Pay by supporting the Living Wage concept and moving toward a Basic Income System: 
  • Develop Sustainable Approaches to taxation and increase the tax take: Sustainable and inclusive growth requires approaches to raising revenue that generate enough to support vital services and to move to a social investment approach.
  • Ensure Inclusive Governance and promote Social Dialogue: Engage with key stakeholders to ensure that groups at risk of poverty and social exclusion, and unemployed people can influence policy-direction and implementation, and that their experiences become part of the dialogue with national and European institutions to try and repair social cohesion and political legitimacy.
  • Poverty Proofing and Monitoring: All Government decisions should be subject to a poverty-proofing process that ensures actions taken will not increase poverty under any heading or cumulatively impact negatively on any particular groups.
  • Commit to appropriate regional strategies that ensure that investment is balanced between the regions, and is underpinned by goals of social, economic, and environmental wellbeing.

The strength of the social contract is in its ability to improve the quality of life and wellbeing of all citizens and communities.  It would deliver environmental, social and economic stability and social rights in Ireland.