6th Dec 2023


Part of EU middle class 'being squeezed out', MEP warns

  • MEP Jordi Cañas: 'There is an important part of the European middle class that is being squeezed out' (Photo: Ciudadanos Europa)
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The European Union is seeking to boost its social agenda credentials.

Last month, the Porto Social Forum took place — a meeting to analyse to what extent the social objectives set at the unprecedented summit organised by the Portuguese EU presidency in 2021 have been achieved.

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  • There is a discomfort of those middle classes who say: 'What about me, who remembers me?' (Photo: Pexels)

Two years on, the European Parliament has issued a report saying progress has been made, but also stresses the need for better results to meet the European social roadmap for the rest of this mandate, and the following ones.

The report, which is almost entirely focused on the needs of the most vulnerable, makes several references to Europe's middle class, which has been largely neglected in political debates, according to the liberal group Renew Europe.

EUobserver interviewed Spanish MEP Jordi Cañas, vice-president of Renew, and a member of the employment and social affairs committee, to discuss the situation of Europe's middle class, the dangerous political reaction that can result from certain groups feeling neglected, and the role that member states and the EU can play at public policy level.

From the Renew Europe group, you put the focus on the middle class, why?

The question should almost be 'why not?'

The idea came up as ideas come up, in contexts. We were discussing how the Porto objectives had evolved on a social level, how they had been implemented, how to move forward in these strategies ... But when we looked at the text, we thought: 'Where is the middle class?' That's the problem — the middle class is never there.

When we talk about social policies — and not only social policies — we never have a perspective of how they affect the middle class, who are suffering a process of degradation, of erosion, which affects them not only economically, but also in terms of their own perception of class. And that also has a political drift.

If nobody talks about you, you end up listening only to those who quote you, and that is a risk. Firstly, if we want to do a good job as legislators. And secondly, if we want to listen to a kind of background noise that is becoming increasingly dull. A restlessness, a discomfort of those middle classes who say: "What about me, who remembers me?"

What happens then?

When you feel excluded from that social space, you react politically. There is an important part of the middle class that is being squeezed out. When there is a loss of purchasing power, a lack of security in the future, in terms of employment or pensions, there is fear, and fear has very dangerous political consequences.

Before complaining about why people vote for the far right, it is necessary to understand that there are political movements that have identified the problems.

What we have to try to do is to make sure that when people say 'what about me?', there is an answer. We have to worry about the most vulnerable, but that doesn't mean we don't think about the vulnerability of those who are the skeleton, the support of liberal democracies, the middle classes.

The response you want is an EU action plan. What should it contain?

The best way to launch a policy is through legislation, but also through messages, and the message has to be clear: "The European institutions care about their middle classes".

The EU action plan is a tool that puts forward ideas and then tries to ensure that they are taken up by the member states. It is not the only instrument, but it is a good starting point.

How can this message be translated into a concrete policy proposal? In the European context, in an action plan. And this plan has to include cross-cutting policies, not just social policies. When you talk about climate or energy targets, you have to think about the impact on the middle classes. There are hardly any impact studies that take into account the effects of policy decisions that affect production models or agricultural issues, and this needs to be taken into account. Otherwise, there will be unintended consequences that will affect the same old people — the middle classes.

So what is the role of the member states and what is the role of the EU?

There is perspective at the EU level, but it is important to involve the states, which are the ones who have the details — or should have the details.

What happens is that when you analyse state-by-state and see how some parts of the political debates develop and how that translates into votes, you realise that in the EU as a whole there is a kind of lack of attention to what the middle classes need, which is not just specific policies, but a kind of respect for who they are, for feeling cared for.

For example, there are sectors of young people who will find it very difficult to become middle class. If we want this whole machine to keep running, we have to give the middle classes the attention they deserve. If the engine stops, the rest doesn't work.

At what threshold should the middle class be located? Because in Spain, for example, there has been criticism that certain households receive benefits or grants when they do not need them financially.

This is where the EU action plan comes in. How do we set the thresholds so that an important part of the middle class, those who are most at risk of losing their status, receive this public support? Each country would have a different approach to the plan. Each will have its own thresholds.

The key is not to exclude the middle class. The message has to be very clear and political: that no one should be excluded from this space because they don't have the resources. The objective of the public sector is that everyone should have a dignified life, and for that we cannot allow those who have it to lose it. That is why we need specific policies, because the ones we have do not seem to be working and people notice that.

If you look at the electoral behaviour in a certain part of Europe, you see that there is a generalised anger at feeling excluded from public policies.

There is increasing talk of an economic growth model measured in terms other than GDP. How do you see the social pillar in such a European roadmap?

GDP is an important measure, but it cannot be the only one. GDP growth has to take into account whether or not inequality is increasing, and we have to see what we mean by inequality. The problem with inequality comes when it is based on a minority earning more and a majority earning less, and that 'less' is less compared to the rise in the cost of living, rent, etc.

On a salary of just over €1,000, you subsist badly. We can't have people who finish their studies and then go and live in a rented room as their main goal. We have to think about that, or it will pay for itself in the end. Difficulties have to be faced. It is not easy, and it is not quick, but what is not normal is that we are not talking about what everyone wants to opt for.

This debate is important because, if done well, it can lead to interesting conclusions and reflections, it can send a clear political message, it can lead to decisions, and it can always remind us that actions have consequences, that legislation has consequences, and that it cannot always be the same people who pay the price.

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