28th Feb 2024

Slow progress on EU poverty sees MEPs demand directive

  • The average annual inflation level among the EU-27 was 9.2 percent in December — driven particularly by higher energy and food prices (Photo: Unsplash)
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In 2021, more than one-in-five Europeans were at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

Now the EU institutions are working to reduce this figure — but only by using the same mechanism they put in place more than 30 years ago, an EU Council recommendation.

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"The commission's proposal is not even a first step in that direction," Estrella Durá, MEP rapporteur from the Socialists and Democrats, told EUobserver. "It should have gone further and established a directive," she said.

For those who may be wondering, a 'recommendation' does not legally bind member states to guarantee those levels of minimum income support to ensure no one is excluded or in poverty. A 'directive' does.

Already in 2021, 95.4 million people were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU. Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and inflationary pressures have worsened the picture. The average annual inflation level among the EU-27 was 9.2 percent in December, driven in particular by higher energy and food prices.

The EU's goal is to reduce the number of those affected by 15 million people by 2030, at the latest. "This means people experiencing poverty will still be waiting for another seven years before their minimum income will be at the adequate level. If this materialises," Peter Verhaeghe, policy and advocacy officer at Caritas Europa, told EUobserver. "Do they really need to wait so long?," he adds.

The commission itself, in a 2022 report prepared together with the EU's advisory Social Protection Committee (SPC), warned that the adequacy of minimum income schemes has hardly changed in the last decade. Indeed, it points out: "at the current levels, benefits are not enough to lift people out of (relative) poverty".

When minimum wages, social insurance or social assistance transfer do not reach those in need, there is a last-resort: income support. These are called minimum income schemes and, although they exist in all member states, they are not always adequate in reaching those who need them, or in encouraging them to return to the labour market.

On Tuesday (24 January), the European Parliament's employment committee voted on its position. Durá, along with 26 other MEPs, voted in favour of the draft report, which includes a call for the commission to push for a directive on this issue. "A priority for my political family," she said.

The report also includes a call for public-service providers to be proactive in identifying and helping those entitled to these benefits to apply. Not applying online, but in person, will help to ensure that bureaucratic red tape does not get in the way of those who require this support, such as homeless people.

The council already adopted its position last December, and now the parliament's draft will be added to the February plenary agenda.

NGO Caritas Europa agrees on the need to establish a legal instrument such as the directive to tackle this problem, and adds an important nuance to the position of member states: they have not included a definition of what quality employment means.

The emphasis of these schemes is on getting people back into the labour market as quickly as possible, without considering the fact that the conditions of some jobs or wages may be so bad that unemployed people do not want to accept them.

"There are people working who are still in poverty. Having a job does not lift people out of poverty," Verhaeghe said.

Indeed, the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) and Eurodiaconia, the federation of Christian churches and organisations, already called in October for eligibility for income support to be based on the income situation, not on the status of the person.

Moreover, they stressed in that joint statement the need for better adequacy, coverage, and scope of these schemes. In practice, this means ensuring that those who are entitled to receive this support do so, and that it is sufficient to ensure a life in dignity, as enshrined in the principles of the European social pillar.

"Everyone lacking sufficient resources has the right to adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life, and effective access to enabling goods and services," the document states.

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