Recommendations to the EPSCO Council of 9 June 2020
Invest, Protect and Empower – A Vision for the European Union post 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the entire European continent, leaving no one untouched. People have been forced to adapt their lives as they face a new reality. Whilst much action has already been taken to strengthen health care provision and to protect the economy, there remain significant gaps in the actions taken by the European Union and Member States. If these gaps are not addressed quickly then we will face severe economic and social consequences that are expected to have a greater negative impact than those following the 2008 financial and economic crisis, according to the latest European Commission forecast.
As we come to the end of the Europe 2020 strategy, there is a need to ensure that the European Union continues to pursue an overarching political strategy. This must bring together key existing instruments such as the European Green Deal, the European Pillar of Social Rights and economic and financial governance through the European Semester. Such a strategy must go beyond initial recovery from the pandemic but have a longer-term vision of an economy of wellbeing and the sustainability of our environment and social models, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Eurodiaconia is a network of 52 churches and Christian organisations that provide social and health care services and advocate for social justice. With over 30,000 service centres, approximately 800,000 staff and over a million volunteers around Europe, our members are at the forefront in confronting the social challenges of today, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day we see the social, economic, health, emotional and spiritual needs faced by people. We have a unique view of the challenges on the ground and the emerging needs and trends, and we, therefore, call on the EPSCO Council to systematically address the current crisis through ambitious and immediate action and develop a longer-term post-2020 strategy.
Social services are under pressure. The COVID-19 pandemic has put into sharp relief the challenge facing the social services sector. Issues of funding, staffing, availability of services, access to appropriate equipment and the scope for innovation have all been affected by the crisis. This has a human cost now but, if not addressed quickly, will have a longer-term detrimental impact on our societies. Whereas we welcome the proposal of the CRII and CRII+, the situation requires immediate dispersal of funds, not only to Member States, but also directly to social and health care service providers. We must ensure that administrative hurdles and bureaucracy do not stand in the way of vital service delivery. With a long-term perspective, a post-2020 strategy must promote investment in our social and health care services and enable Member States to make sustainable progress in ensuring the availability, accessibility, affordability and quality of social and health care services.
We further welcome the loosening of fiscal rules through the Stability and Growth Pact to allow for greater spending in urgent areas by Member States. However, this cannot be a time-limited, one-off measure. The social impact of this crisis will not unfold in fullness for some time and so investment in education, training, social and health care will need to be incorporated into the Stability and Growth Pact as required. Therefore, it is imperative that the European Commission work with Member States to ensure that a complete package of social benefits for the overall wellbeing of people is put in place quickly, mitigating the severe social and economic impact and increase in poverty post COVID-19, especially towards the vulnerable populations in each country. A long-term post-2020 strategy should recognise the benefits of social investment and encourage such spending as a way to ensure the empowerment and autonomy of all people in our societies as well as encouraging economic growth.
The most vulnerable in our societies are under pressure. The current economic response from the European Commission recognises that high unemployment will be a result of the current crisis. However, the economic response cannot limit itself to protecting SMEs alone. It must look at how social protection systems can be enhanced with increases in not only the coverage of such systems, but also the level of benefits provided. It is unacceptable to see higher rates of relative and absolute poverty because of the inadequacy of social benefits. It is therefore essential that, alongside the proposals on SURE, work is accelerated on adequate minimum income and that Member States are given guidance on the level of social benefits that will ensure people are able to retain a dignified life. Additionally, any future EU strategy must include an agreed poverty target that is measurable across all Member States and for which Member States are accountable for progress.
Employment in the social economy sector must be protected as it will assist many people in multiple ways. Access to employment support for the long-term unemployed or others who find the employment market hard to access must not be suspended indefinitely as to do so will potentially negate what has already been achieved. Member States must not use the current crisis to withdraw financing to projects supporting entry to the labour market. With a longer-term perspective, a post-2020 strategy must ensure that reducing poverty and social exclusion form a centre point and that Member States must be accountable, through processes such as the European Semester, for their progress in this area. For instance, in line with SDG 1, the EU should set an ambitious target to end extreme poverty by 2030 and to reduce the risk of poverty and social exclusion by 50% – with clear indicators as well as yearly national goals to reach*.
The European Commission has developed several strategies and policy initiatives that are designed to address some of the challenges facing the European Union at this time. The proposal on the Green Deal and the landmark adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights are welcome in the drive to ensure a social and sustainable Europe. However, they are instruments that must link to a wider goal of the European Union – the wellbeing of its people and their empowerment to be active participants in their societies and democracies. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide an ambitious yet achievable framework for such an overarching strategy but work is still needed to align the SDGs to the various policy instruments already in progress. A long-term strategy for the EU should not only take into account the SDGs but actively develop pathways to the achievement of the SDGs among the Member States of the European Union.
- The European Commission should establish a task force or similar to analyse the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and propose responsive actions using all the legislative, policy and financial tools at the European Union’s disposal. The social impact of this pandemic will require ambitious, sustained and coordinated action at European level. Such a task force should include all stakeholders including civil society and social and health care service providers.
- Accelerate work on policies that will address those facing increased vulnerabilities at this time and ensure that they focus on actions and not only advice. Work on Minimum Income, the future Multiannual Financial Framework, the Action Plans on the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Green Deal and the Action Plan on Social Economy must deliver in the coming months and not be postponed as a result of the current crisis. They must be mutually reinforcing and seek to achieve an overall goal.
- Develop a post 2020 strategy for the European Union that focuses on social investment, protects the most vulnerable and ensures the active empowerment and wellbeing of all people. Such as strategy should bring together the objectives and priorities of the proposed European Green Deal, the European Pillar of Social Rights and policies of economic and financial governance to provide an overarching process of improving the wellbeing of people and the sustainability of our environment.
Eurodiaconia Secretary General
*Eurodiaconia supports the EU Alliance for investing in children in its “Call for Action for a comprehensive, sustainable Europe 2030 strategy with a strong social dimension” from June 2nd 2020