24th Nov 2020

EU anti-poverty plan lacks substance, says civil society

  • A beggar in Italy (Photo: .craig)

The European Commission unveiled on Thursday (16 December) a ten-year plan to combat poverty in the bloc, aiming to cut the number of people living in poverty by 20 million by 2020.

Social affairs commissioner Laszlo Andor and the document outlining the strategy both condemned the state of poverty in the bloc: "Combating poverty is both a moral duty and an economic necessity. With millions still living on the margins of society we are wasting our human resources."

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According to commission data, some 84 million Europeans live in poverty.

The document noted that the poor have borne much of the impact of the economic crisis and that as a result, the situation of those earning the lowest amount has continued to deteriorate.

In particular, young people, migrants and the low skilled, have experienced the greatest increases in unemployment. One in five young people in the labour market is jobless; the unemployment rate for non-EU nationals is more than 11 percentage points higher than for nationals and the low skilled are experiencing an increase in unemployment twice that seen by the highly skilled.

"This is unacceptable in the 21st Century Europe," declares the paper. "The European Union and its member states must do more and do it more efficiently and effectively to help our most vulnerable citizens."

Civil society groups however worry that for all the positive language and good intentions contained in the plan, there is little of substance.

With social policy jealously guarded by member state governments, the EU level has very little it can do in the area.

However, under the new plan, the 'EU Platform Against Poverty' the commission aims to at least co-ordinate the various national anti-poverty efforts.

Countries have to set their own "ambitious" national targets and report annually on how close they are to achieving these goals.

Brussels will be monitoring success rates, although it has no power of sanction to pressure laggards in the same way that it does with fiscal policies or state-aid scofflaws.

The strategy will also see the creation of a microfinance programme that aims to help vulnerable groups access loans to set up their own business. The programme will be up and running by early 2011, although the project comes just as some international opinion on microfinance has begun to turn from celebratory to sceptical.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, whose countryman Mohammed Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on microcredit, recently slammed the concept for its high interest rates, saying: "Micro-lenders ... are sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation."

Elsewhere, the EU strategy aims to encourage member states to innovate in social policy and employ an "evidence-based" approach to its anti-poverty work and assess success rates.

Anti-poverty campaign groups cautiously welcomed the plan, but said that the EU needs to go further than "good intentions" with "urgent actions."

However, Ludo Horemans, president of the European Anti-Poverty Network, a group of NGOs working on poverty issues, said that the austerity measures being imposed by governments undermine any efforts to alleviate poverty: "Given the reality of the austerity measures taken in most member states, which impact on people living in poverty and exclusion the most, urgent actions will be needed if the good intentions and commitments in the platform are to be convincing."

He said that the introduction of a minimum income scheme across Europe would go far toward bringing millions of citizens above the poverty threshold, an idea already proposed by the European Parliament.

How the strategy will be implemented was also a key concern of civil society.

"The governance of the strategy remains unclear," said Fintan Farrell, the group's director. 

"If the strategy is to be a truly EU-wide strategy and not just a Brussels-based exercise, then local and national action plans for inclusion, as well as follow up of distinct thematic areas, will be essential to deliver on the promise."

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