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4th Mar 2024

EU made 'little difference' to disabled lives, find auditors

  • Member states bear the brunt of responsibility — by watering down or not implementing EU directives, the European Disability Forum said (Photo: Unsplash)
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EU efforts in recent years have made "little difference" to the lives of 87 million people in the bloc with disabilities, according to a report by the European Court of Auditors on Thursday (12 October).

"People with disabilities in the EU still face an uphill struggle to get a job and fight poverty, as well as barriers to their freedom of movement," said Stef Blok, who led the audit.

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Only about half of people with disabilities were in employment in 2021, compared with three-in-four people without disabilities, showing there has been no significant improvement in the last years.

A similar picture emerges when looking at the number of people with disabilities at risk of poverty or social exclusion, which is almost 30 percent of the total — a decrease of less than one percent over six years.

What's more, the right to move freely is not guaranteed, as EU countries do not automatically recognise disability status granted in another member state. This means that they do not enjoy equal treatment when moving or working across the EU-27.

"The EU's executive has issued EU-wide disability strategies and proposed new initiatives, but relevant legislation has stalled," reads the report.

In its 2021-2030 strategy, the EU executive has addressed the shortcomings of the previous strategy, say the auditors, and proposed initiatives that go in the right direction (such as the European disability card and the disability employment package). However, significant issues remain unresolved.

The EU Commission has not yet reviewed all relevant EU legislation to assess compliance with the UN Convention setting minimum standards for the rights of persons with disabilities, which was ratified in 2010.

"EU countries bear the brunt of the responsibility regarding the limited impact of EU action, by watering down legislation and foregoing implementation," Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the European Disability Forum, commented on the report.

For example, the implementation of the European Accessibility Act, which aims to improve access to key products and services for people with disabilities, has been delayed by member states, the auditors found. A delay likely to have a negative impact on their lives.

The directive should have been transposed by June 2022, but at the time of the audit, only three member states had communicated their transposed measures — and they were incomplete.

"We need closer scrutiny of the EU's actions in all areas, whether they are related to developing policies and legislation, funding actions to support persons with disabilities or ensuring proposed policies are actually implemented by member states," Vardakastanis said.

The report also notes that the links between EU funding programmes (2021-30) and the objectives are still weak, i.e. there is no specific funding to achieve the objectives set, and no information to assess the extent to which the funding has contributed to improving the living conditions of people with disabilities.

And what is worse, there is no comparable data for the commission to have a sound overview of the situation of people with disabilities across the EU, auditors say.

No leading by example

Social policies are the responsibility of the member states, with the EU playing a supporting and coordinating role.

Public expenditure also produces different results. The share of GDP spent on social protection for people with disabilities is 2.2 percent in the EU, ranging from five percent in Denmark to less than one percent in Malta, Cyprus, and Ireland.

On the other hand, despite the commission's stated commitment to the collective, the EU institutions themselves are not leading by example.

The EU institutions employed around 4,000 trainees in 2022, but the number of people with disabilities remains unknown.

When it comes to recruitment, only the European Parliament has an action plan.

In 2022, the chamber hired six people with disabilities and counted on 30 trainees during the year. The Council of the European Union employed six trainees and the ECA at least one.

The commission does not have a plan and the Court of Justice of the EU is currently considering one.

"As employers, EU institutions show ambition in fostering the inclusion of persons with disabilities, but demonstrated results are limited," auditors concluded.

The ECA recommends that the EU executive obtain more comparable data, review all existing EU legislation, and push for the mutual recognition of disability status across member states.

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