In 2010, the European Commission announced an ambitious goal: within the next 10 years, it would lift at least 20 million persons out of poverty or social exclusion. ‘Poverty reduction' became a main target of the new Europe2020 programme, aimed at creating a ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive Europe'.
Four years later, the number of persons in Europe facing poverty has increased rather than decreased. This is an alarming development for citizens, policy makers and social service providers– and it cannot purely be seen as an outcome of the financial crisis.
Poverty levels are also rising because EU Member States lack the will or the capacity to translate the Europe-wide poverty target into effective national policy reforms.
With this toolkit, we want to encourage our members to take action by using a unique EU policy tool: the European Semester.
The European Semester is an annual cycle of policy coordination which the European Commission uses to analyse EU Member States' economic and budgetary policy and to provide recommendations for future reforms.
The European Semester is not only important for national governments - it is also important for us as diaconal organisations. Firstly, the European Semester is meant to support Member States in achieving the targets of Europe2020, and can have a serious impact on poverty and social exclusion policies.
In the links below, you will find more information on the European Semester and on concrete ways to engage with it. Please help us use the full potential of the European Semester to realise a more social Europe by 2020.
This toolkit has received financial support from the European Union Programme for Employment and Social Innovation "EaSI" (2014-2020). For further information please click here
Europe 2020 is a 10-year strategy for Europe's development until 2020. Replacing the earlier Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs (2000-2010), it aims to ensure “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” – it is intended to provide a foundation for a more competitive, resource-friendly economy and to create improved conditions for employment and social inclusion.
The Europe2020 programme has 5 headline targets, each one expressed in quantified terms:
Progress made towards these headline targets is being measured by 10 indicators on both an EU and a national level. EU-wide and national figures for the years 2010-2014 can be consulted here. As these Eurostat figures illustrate, progress made towards Europe2020's headline targets has in many cases remained modest, or (in the case of poverty reduction) even pointed to a downward trend.
This can partly be explained through the Eurozone crisis, which has led many Member States to pursue austerity policies and cut back on investments into the social service sector. However, particularly in the case of poverty reduction, the lack of progress is also related to a lack of political commitment on a national level - EU member states have not undertaken any serious attempts to translate the EU-wide poverty target into concrete national targets and into country-specific policy and funding reforms.
When the Europe2020 Strategy was introduced, a Midterm Review was announced to take place in 2015. The aim would be to draw lessons from the first years of the Europe2020 Programme and to develop an effective post-crisis strategy for the following years, giving civil society actors an opportunity to share their feedback on the process.
However, the start of a new Commission term under President Juncker (with new political priorities) in November 2014 made the future of the Europe2020 Strategy and its poverty reduction target more uncertain. A formal Midterm Review has not yet taken place, although Europe 2020 continues to be mentioned as a relevant initiative in key documents such as the Annual Growth Survey (Go to the European Semester Chapter)
Out of the five main targets which constitute the core of the Europe 2020 Programme, it is the Poverty Target which is the most important to Eurodiaconia and its members, as it provides a clear political direction and legitimacy for poverty reduction policies. Arguably, it is also one of the most difficult targets to attain.
According to the principle of subsidiarity, economic policy falls under the competency of the EU, which means that EU institutional bodies can prescribe legally binding directives to individual EU Member States. By contrast, social policy (which includes policies relating to poverty reduction) falls under the competency of EU Member States. This means that EU Member States are responsible for shaping their own policies, and the EU can only offer non-binding recommendations – unless they are directly interlinked with economic policies. However, economic policy decisions have an impact on the social situation in Member States, so we need to look at economic decisions from a social perspective. Recently, the European direction provided through Country Specific Recommendations and the Annual Growth Survey has too often given priority to economic growth objectives, leaving aside the poverty reduction target.
Check your country's progress towards the poverty target here.
Despite the EU's efforts to reduce poverty and social exclusion using a ‘soft approach' through the EPAP, the number of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion has increased rather than decreased since 2010, as Eurostat figures indicate here. But what does this concretely mean, and how is it measured? The EU defines poverty and social exclusion on the basis of three indicators:
To read more about the indicators underpinning the EU's poverty target, please click here. It is important to note that the EU does not reduce its definition of poverty or social exclusion to any single indicator: rather, the number of people is equal to the sum of all people who either:
However, a major challenge lies in the fact that EU Member States did not all agree to the European Commission's definition. In fact, the choice was left to each individual Member State to come up with its own interpretation of the meaning of poverty. For example, one national government could define poverty primarily as material deprivation, whilst another government could instead claim to fight poverty by relying on the “jobless household” indicator. Two EU Member States can therefore use the same terminology for doing very different things. Moreover, and shockingly, the actual poverty targets agreed on by Member States do not add up to a poverty reduction of 20 million people, but of 12 million people.
These realities call into question Member States' political willingness to reduce poverty, and the actual value of the mechanisms introduced by the EPAP. Furthermore, the “Annual Conventions” of the EPAP have not yet led to innovative, integrated approaches, which would be really needed, and not yet provided enough space for a differentiated, critical discussion on the progress made toward the achievement of the poverty target.
To realise positive change, action needs to be taken at a national level. It is against this background that the European Semester becomes very important: you can read more about this mechanism here.
The fact that the European Semester is not a legally binding mechanism regarding social policies does not mean that it is not important. On the contrary, the European Semester is among the key advocacy tools which diaconal actors have at their disposal to voice their concerns and to engage meaningfully with their national governments.
There are multiple main reasons why the European Semester should be taken very seriously by international networks and grassroots organisations alike. The following reasons are listed in a toolkit of the ‘Joint Alliance on the European Semester':
The European Semester is amongst the most important tools which civil society organisations have at their disposal to bring about social change. In the sections below, we want to clarify the European Semester's structure and explain why it matters to diaconal actors. You can find more information on ways to concretely engage with it here.
The main aim of the European Semester is to ensure co-ordination of the budgetary and economic policies that underpin Europe 2020. It is an annual cycle of political activities which primarily involves the European Commission and EU Member State governments, but it also relies on the participation of other actors: EU institutional bodies such as the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, international NGO platforms and networks, and local grassroots organisations. The European Semester can be broken down into the following core steps:
It is important to note that, with regards to the Poverty Target, the European Semester relies on ‘soft' rather than on ‘hard' political pressure. At the moment, only Country Specific Recommendations linked to public finances (public deficit and public debt) are legally binding on Member States (and backed up by the threat of financial sanctions under EU law). CSRs linked to the achievement of the poverty target are not legally binding, but can nonetheless be effective if backed by sufficient political pressure. For more information on the European Semester, please click here.
Information from the European Commission:
Information from the EU Semester Alliance:
Information from Eurodiaconia:
The basis for engagement in the European Semester is to analyse the key documents underpinning your country's social policies (European and/or national) and share your analysis, based on your expertise. For information on how to do this and who to contact, please click on the relevant section below
A first step to be involved is to contact the relevant person/ department of the government / public administration (often the social affairs and employment department), to ask for a clarification on the process of the drafting of the National Reform Program: what form is the stakeholders' engagement taking? How can stakeholders be involved in designing the draft NRP and commenting on it?
From the European Commission’s side, your most relevant contacts are the European Semester Officer and the Country Desk Officer. The mission of the Semester Officers is to make the European Semester more accessible to civil society and to turn it into a more inclusive and democratic instrument. For example, in Italy and in Belgium, Semester Officers organise information and dialogue sessions for stakeholders in order to improve the bottom-up aspect of the European Semester. To find an updated list of Semester Officers, please click here. Country Desk Officers are tasked with producing a balanced picture of the challenges which their respective Member State is facing and with drafting the Commission’s annual Country Reports. To find an updated list of Country Desk Officers, please click here.
It can also be very relevant to contact the Social Protection Committee (SPC) member in your country. The SPC is a joint advisory committee gathering national social policy experts from each member. It can be very useful to be in contact with them as they monitor what is happening at EU level regarding social policies.
The main document to be aware of is the National Reform Program, in which the national government presents its country's policies and measures to sustain growth and jobs and to reach the Europe 2020 targets. To be formally involved in the “European Semester process” it is necessary that NGOs get involved before the publication of this document. Therefore it is crucial to have read the Country Report and to comment on it and participate in consultations that take place with the responsible national ministry while the NRP is being written. The earlier you can make your voice heard, the more likely it is that your arguments will be taken into account.
Once the NRPs are published it is still not too late to intervene. Read the document and comment on it. Some key questions to respond to in analysing the NRP could be:
The European Commission “Staff working document” are now called “country reports”. They analyse the social and economic state of play of Member States. They used to be released at the same time as the Country Specific Recommendations, but are now released in February. Member States are expected to use the Country Reports and build their National Reform Programmes (NRPs) on those findings.
As Country Reports constitute are the basis on which the Member States build their National Reform Programmes and the European Commission builds the Country Specific Recommendations, they provide civil society organisations with an important opportunity for engagement. Moreover, the European Commission’s Country Desk officers are often interested to hear an alternative perspective to the governmental one.
Eurodiaconia members can read the Country Reports and provide feedback on the accuracy of their (social) content. However, they can also provide Country Desk Officers with relevant information throughout the year in order to influence the content of the next Country Report. If you would like to contact the Country Desk officer responsible for your country but don’t know his/her name, please contact the Eurodiaconia secretariat.
The Country Specific Recommendations are issued by the European Commission to raise specific issues to each government, following up on the above mentioned staff working documents and in depth review. It is important that diaconal organisations comment on their appropriateness, highlight what is missing, or use them as “hooks” in national advocacy, to remind national and local authorities of the EU's recommendations. This on the ground analysis is very rich and useful.
At the end of the year, the European Commission issues the “Annual Growth Survey” for the following year. It sets out its priorities and kicks off the European Semester of economic and budgetary policy coordination for the new year. It is important to be aware of it and react to it, but it is very hard to influence its contents. However, it can be useful to be aware of what the European Commission's priorities are, for instance when you're applying to EU sources of funding and looking to match these priorities.
Diaconal organisation are not like any organisation. They are different from a network of people experience poverty or a green organisation. As a faith-based social service provider, sometimes linked to a church, you can play special “cards”:
When working on broad issues such as the European Semester, it can be useful to cooperate with other organisations actorswith similar aims through (in)formal coalitions. These often carry more political weight as they represent a greater number of voices, and they allow individual organisations to exchange knowledge and complement each other’s areas of expertise. At the EU level, Eurodiaconia is a member of the Joint Alliance on the European Semester. which brings together not-for-profit social service providers such as Eurodiaconia with trade unions, anti-poverty organisations and environmental organisations.
At the national level, organisations like Kerk in Actie (NL) and Diakonie Austria have been involved in the European Semester Cycle through coalitions for many years. In the Netherlands, the ‘Social Alliance’ participates in the consultation around the NRP, and grants Kerk in Actie access to high-level stakeholder meetings which would otherwise remain out of reach. Similarly, Diakonie Austria is part of a working group (Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft) of large national welfare organisations commenting on Country Reports and other key documents.
To get ideas on how to start advocacy work on the European Semester, what key arguments you could use or whom you should contact, please have a look at the documents listed below. The list contains templates (that can directly be used), examples of letters already sent, Powerpoint presentations on the importance of alliance-building and advocacy for diaconal organisations, and finally the Eurodiaconia advocacy toolkit.
Presentation by Carla van der Vlist, Kerk in Actie: Networking, alliance building
Presentation by Antoine Sondag, Secours Catholique: How does advocacy contribute to our diaconal objectives?
As a Europe-wide network of social service providers and social justice actors, Eurodiaconia takes engagement in the European Semester very seriously. Our members offer very practical support to persons at risk of poverty and social exclusion, but they are also involved in advocacy and policy-shaping at national, regional and local level.
Kofoeds Skole in Denmark criticised the process of participation in the NRP. It seems to remain an information process rather than a real dialogue where stakeholders can impact the content of the NRP. However, Kofoeds Skole states that “the most positive outcome from the NRP is that Denmark now has a poverty line and a procedure for handling measurements of poverty. There is now more focus on poverty. The Government has also drawn up ten goals on inclusion to be reached by 2020. This, however, is more the result of national campaigns than NRP. Policy development takes place in the Parliament and is reflected in NRP. Results are achieved on the national level more than in EU-papers.
In Romania, the Christian Foundation Diakonia advocated in 2013 for a stronger involvement of churches and faith-based organisations in the European Semester – they did so as a member of the Consultative Council of state-recognized churches in Romania. ‘We helped to elaborate a Memorandum, addressed to the Romanian Government, of the 17 recognized churches in the field of education, social and medical assistance.”
Diakonie Deutschlandhas been involved in the European Semester process since the beginning and share three tips with us:
“Firstly, I would encourage other organisations to call for joint meetings with representatives from different Ministries. The Ministry for Economic Affairs in particular is an important interlocutor, as it tends to be responsible for the coordination of the overall NRP drafting process (at least in Germany). Being in direct contact with the Ministry for Economic Affairs also enhances the chance of achieving greater coherence between economic and social priorities.
Secondly, I can recommend having a look at your country report, which the European Commission now publishes in February each year. In our experience, the country report tends to assess the social situation in a country more realistically than the national government; we have used some of the country report’s observations to strengthen our own arguments and proposals.
Thirdly, it might be worthwhile to contact the European Commission desk officer for your country. You can provide input for the next country report and, most importantly, provide suggestions during the drafting phase of the CSRs. For example, last year, the poverty expert of Diakonie Deutschland contacted one of the Commission desk officers for Germany to discuss the content of a potential CSR on poverty reduction.”
Kerk in Actie in the Netherlands, stressed in an interview the importance of creating coalitions and alliances with partner organisations: “Internally, within our own Sociale Alliantie, it has proven relatively easy to reach consensus and to agree on common messages; together, we are taken more seriously because we represent a greater number of voices, and Kerk in Actie gets a chance to attend meetings which it might not have been invited to if it would have acted on its own. Joining hands is even more important as the number of stakeholders being consulted can be very limited. For example, whilst the Netherlands are apparently a ‘best practice’ country when it comes to stakeholder involvement, only five social stakeholders were actually invited to the 2016 NRP consultation (the Sociale Alliantie being one of them).” They also recommend to discuss key Semester documents and developments in any meetings with government officials: “For example, the Sociale Alliantie requested that a review of the draft NRP be put on the agenda for the meeting with State Secretary Jetta Klijnsma. In the end, this proved to be a valuable opportunity to provide feedback via another route.”
In 2012, Diakonie Deutschland gave a very rich and detailed outline of its involvement in the European Semester process in 2012. Those members who are new to the process can derive ideas and inspiration regarding potential steps to take:
For more ideas and input on other diaconal organisations' participation in the European Semester, read the full report of members' experience of the European Semester here:
What can be done when Member States do not consult stakeholders or consult them too late?
Firstly, take notes of what is happening. Is the government not giving information to any of the stakeholders, or are specific organisations being excluded from the process? Is the information limited or non-existent? To help your organisation get a clear view of what is happening in terms of engagement, please use the Eurodiaconia dashboard.
Secondly, please share the information. Let Eurodiaconia know what is happening, and we will relay this information to the relevant European Commission department, such as the Employment and Social Affairs Department working on Europe 2020, or your country desk officer.