The European Semester: a key policy tool for Eurodiaconia members

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.

I want to know more

I want to act

What can be done?

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.

European Commission

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

An ambitious vision

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:

  • Employment: To raise the employment rate of the population aged 20-64 (both men and women) to at least 75%
  • Research & Development: To achieve that 3% of the EU's GDP (public and private combined) is invested in Research, Development and Innovation
  • Climate change/Energy: To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% compared to 1990 levels (or even by 30% if the conditions are right), to increase the share of renewable energy within the EU's total energy consumption by 20%, and to achieve a 20% increase in energy efficiency
  • Education: To reduce the rate of early school leavers to 10% and to increase the percentage of persons aged 30-34 having completed tertiary education to at least 40%
  • Reduction of Poverty and social exclusion: To achieve that at least 20 million people are no longer in or at risk of poverty or social exclusion

Challenges and barriers

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.

What happens next?

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.

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 2016 Annual Growth Survey (Go to the European Semester Chapter)

"[Europe2020] has added value and has generated positive effects notably by triggering action at the European level and in Member States in a number of areas that represent key drivers for jobs and growth" (p. 5)

"The Commission will make the best use of the existing strategy and its tools by improving its implementation and monitoring in the context of the European Semester" (p. 5).

It currently remains unclear how the strategy will be linked to other policy priorities such as the European Pillar of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Poverty Reduction Target

Is poverty a national responsibility?

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.

A framework for action: the European Platform against Poverty

The subsidiarity principle significantly complicates the European Commission's capacity to influence the national policies of Member States regarding poverty reduction. Aiming to ensure that the poverty target would not constitute a lost cause from the beginning, the European Commission created a ‘flagship initiative' called European Platform Against Poverty (EPAP). The EPAP is intended to be a tool to promote effective action at the European level across the policy spectrum, as well as to encourage and support Member States' actions in this area. It brings together stakeholders from EU institutional bodies, national and regional authorities, academia and civil society in order to help Member States to enrich their approach with the experience of experts and grassroots organisations.

Through the EPAP, the European Union plays a coordinating role by working to identify best practices and promote mutual learning, initiating the establishment of EU-wide rules, and making funding available for the fight against poverty and exclusion in Europe. Once a year, an “Annual Convention” takes place which gives visibility and political weight to the European Platform against Poverty, and takes stock of the progresses made toward the achievement of the poverty reduction target. For more information on the EPAP, please click here.

The EPAP and its Annual convention have both been criticised for their lack of concrete achievements. The midterm review currently under preparation is most likely going to propose a reform of the current format of cooperation with stakeholders. Eurodiaconia’s position is that the EPAP was a step to provide Member States with tools for joint cooperation and action toward poverty reduction in line with the targets of the Europe 2020 strategy. In particular, it raised continual awareness of the Europe 2020 objective of poverty reduction and inclusive growth and supported member states in working together towards these. However, the EPAP must be re-shaped to be stronger in bringing coherence to the different actions under its framework. It should be more strategic in coordinating the different actions and providing a long term vision for poverty reduction in Europe.

Defining poverty

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:

  • At-risk-of-poverty: Share of persons with an equivalised disposable income below 60% of the national equivalised median income. Equivalised median income is defined as the household's total disposable income divided by its "equivalent size", to take account of the size and composition of the household, and is attributed to each household member.
  • Severe material deprivation: Share of population living in households lacking at least 4 items out of the following 9 items: i) to pay rent or utility bills, ii) keep home adequately warm, iii) face unexpected expenses, iv) eat meat, fish or a protein equivalent every second day, v) a week holiday away from home, or could not afford (even if wanted to) vi) a car, vii) a washing machine, viii) a colour TV, or ix) a telephone.
  • (Quasi-) jobless household: People aged 0-59, living in households, where working-age adults (18-59) worked less than 20% of their total work potential during the past year.

A contested definition

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:

  1. have a disposable income below 60% of the national median income; or
  2. are severely materially deprived; or
  3. live in households with very low work intensity; or
  4. are facing any combination of these situations.

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.

European Semester

Why the European Semester matters

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 and Europe 2020 define a development framework for the European Union, setting out a vision for the future of Europe and for a sustainable exit from the crisis.
  • Europe 2020 objectives are direct drivers for EU funding opportunities.
  • Economic objectives are currently being prioritized over social objectives, even though Poverty Reduction constitutes a headline target of Europe 2020. This needs to change, and the European Semester provides a means of doing so.
  • Clear commitments to structured dialogue with stakeholders, including civil society, have been made, and they are supposed to be key partners in delivery - yet this is not happening sufficiently at the moment.

Understand 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:

  1. The Annual Growth Survey (AGS) The first step of each new European Semester starts in November. It is called the ‘Annual Growth Survey' and it is drafted by the European Commission. It sets out broad EU economic priorities for the upcoming year, like tackling unemployment and promoting economic growth. For more information, please click here.
  2. National Reform Programme (NRP) The second step in the European semester is marked by the creation of National Reform Programmes: each EU member state needs to submit one by 15 April, which practically means that the European Commission receives 28 different NRPs within one month. Basically, the NRPs are national responses to the EU-wide Annual Growth Survey. In other words, they set out national economic and social targets for the upcoming year, which should take into account the Europe-wide priorities of the AGS and contribute to reaching the Europe 2020 targets. For more information on the content of NRPs in the EU's individual Member States, please click here.
  3. Country-Specific Recommendations (CSR) In the months April and May, the third main step takes place. The European Commission evaluates the different NRPs and formulates country-specific recommendations for each EU member state. These CSRs are intended to influence the overall policy direction your country is taking. To see concrete examples of CSRs proposed to EU member states in 2016, please click on the buttons below. To get a general overview of recommendations made to your government in the spring 2016, please click here.

        


    These recommendations will be discussed during the June meeting of the European Council, involving the heads of state of the different national governments. Following this discussion (which can either lead to the endorsement, revision or rejection of particular recommendations), the CSRs are then finalised and officially adopted by the Council of the EU in July.
  4. CSR Implementation From July onwards, a final and very crucial step takes place: following the adoption of the CSRs, EU member states are invited to implement them. The CSRs should be taken into consideration whilst each EU member state sets its national budget for the upcoming year, to ensure that there is an adequate financial basis for any required policy reforms. And then, towards the end of the same year, the cycle begins anew.

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.

Further Information

Information from the European Commission:

Information from the EU Semester Alliance:

Information from Eurodiaconia:

  • 2015 Report on the European Semester
    At the end of the 2015 European Semester Cycle, Eurodiaconia compiled a comprehensive assessment of positive and negative trends on the basis of its members’ observations. Drawing on input received from members from Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Romania, it analysed the social dimension of Semester cornerstones like the 2015 Annual Growth Survey, National Reform Programmes and Country-Specific Recommendations.
    Members’ perceptions of the European Semester have become increasingly negative since its introduction in 2010. The main observation of the report is that the European Semester still lacks a strong social dimension and is drifting away from the original Europe2020 Strategy, that attempts to harmonise economic and social priorities are unsatisfying, and that the democratic legitimacy of the process is undermined through the limited involvement of national parliaments, social partners and civil society.
    Using concrete examples, the report compares member experiences and analyses in various EU Member States, and formulates key recommendations on governance and content for the upcoming 2016 Semester cycle.
  • 2016 European Semester Quarterly, Issue 1
    The aim of the Quarterly Journal is to provide Eurodiaconia’s national member organisations with relevant information on key aspects of the Semester, and to encourage their active involvement in the process.
    The first edition provides a general overview of the Semester cycle, explores the social dimension of the 2016 Country Reports, outlines relevant institutional developments, and summarises the experiences of its Dutch member ‘Kerk in Actie’ concerning Semester engagement.
  • 2016 European Semester Quarterly, Issue 2
    The second edition explores the relevance of the Semester in the context of migration and the social dimension of the recently issued Country-specific recommendations. It also outlines recent institutional developments relating to the Semester and features an interview with Dr. Stephanie Scholz from Diakonie Deutschland concerning ways to engage in the process more effectively.

Practical ways to engage with the Semester

Understand how the European Semester works and participate at a national level

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

European Semester

All the necessary information is available online on the European Commission country profile here.

Timeline of the European Semester at a glance: Eurodiaconia toolkit and Council of the EU website.

Further tips

Emphasise your experience and diaconal identity

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”:

  • Report on your experience as a social service provider. Numbers matter. The European Commission is very interested to hear more about your experience of the social situation. Your analysis may confirm or differ from your government's line, and that's important to know. Has demand for the social services you provide increased? By how much and since when? What is your analysis of the causes or solutions? Your experience matters for advocacy on the European Semester - please inform us, and use it as a basis for your own national advocacy. For instance, expertise in the area of homelessness or migration legitimise your organisation's voice on these topics if you feel that they are not being sufficiently addressed by the national reform program. Your experience can also be used to argue in favour of a stronger social investment approach. For instance, Kerk in Actie's ‘debt aid buddy' project demonstrated that each single euro invested in its activities would ultimately save the community 3 euros. This economical approach to the value of not- for-profit organisations shows the importance of supporting and investing in diaconal work.
  • As a faith–based or church-related organisation, you can also argue in terms of broader moral issues, and insist on the need for a more people-centred approach to society as a whole, and the rebalancing of social and economic priorities.

Attend the Eurodiaconia trainings on the European Semester

It will be important to understand the cycle of the European Semester to see when and where it is most appropriate for your organisation to engage in the process. All the information necessary in terms of analysis and data is available, by country, online on the European Commission country profile here.

It can be useful to participate in a Eurodiaconia training to work together with other members on how to engage in the process. The next training will take place in the Czech Republic in 2015. For more information, please contact Eurodiaconia's secretariat. Please also have a look at the part “I want to know more” of this toolkit.


Stay informed of EU policies impacting on your work

  • It is not possible to follow everything that is happening at EU level, which is why we suggest you register to some of Eurodiaconia monthly thematic newsletters. These will enable you to keep an eye on what is happening at EU level in some specific areas, such as long term care or Roma inclusion.
  • Also, if you have a question on advocacy or a specific topic, why not reach out to your contact person in the Eurodiaconia secretariat or to the person responsible for this policy topic for some personal advice? We can also take joint initiatives, for example by organising a study visit for you to meet some of your representatives in Brussels, or by helping you write a letter to argue to your local/national authorities why civil society must be involved in the European Semester process.

Build Alliances

When working on broad issues such as the European Semester, it can be useful to cooperate with other organisations such as a national platform of civil society actors, similar to the EU-level Joint Alliance on the European Semester. This alliance unites not-for-profit social service providers such as Eurodiaconia but also trade unions, anti-poverty organisations and green organisations. For example, at national level, Diakonie Austria joined a network of 15 organisations to produce a 9-point program to improve the inclusion of citizens into political decision making processes, as well as strengthen the role of social organisations and NGOs in the provision of social services.

Other ideas to build alliances on the European Semester include a coalition of social service providers or of faith-based or church-related organisations. For instance, Eurodiaconia regularly works with the Conference of European Churches, to organise join trainings on the European Semester or to jointly address the European Commission, such as in the example here on the poverty target.

Starter kit and concrete tools for participation

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.

Templates

Joint alliance template letter to a ministers responsible for the preparation of National Reform Programmes under the Europe 2020 Strategy regarding the ownership and engagement of civil society and other stakeholders in the drafting, implementation, and monitoring of the NRPs

Examples

Eurodiaconia's letter to the members of the Social Protection Committee ahead of their discussion on the Annual Growth Survey 2015

Presentations

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?

Advocacy toolkit

Eurodiaconia advocacy toolkit

Practical experiences of Eurodiaconia members

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.

Here are some concrete examples from...

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.

Diakonie Deutschland in Germany welcomed in 2014 the introduction of a minimum wage, as well as the intention of the Federal Government to develop the "National Pact for Training and Young Skilled Workers". A training guarantee should be enshrined in law (para. 78 of the NRP). However, Diakonie Deutschland criticised the long-term unemployment indicator selected by the federal government to measure poverty reduction (in line with the Europe 2020 strategy objective), as it couldn't address key aspects of poverty in Germany. “Unfortunately, no specific measures are mentioned in the NRP, which help better integrate single parents in the labour market. Single parents who get an education or to participate in a measure of job centers, are often faced with the difficulty of unclear financing of child care during these times.”

Kerk in Actie, Eurodiaconia's member in the Netherlands, has been involved in the process of the European Semester through a national social alliance. In 2014, the alliance received a draft NRP and was invited to comment on it, but chose not to do so, as it radically disagreed with the government's perspective on poverty. “We don't recognize the analysis and description of the poverty problem in our country and the leading policy to tackle it. We have a very different vision and experience on how poverty can be tackled. The NRP is strongly based upon an expectation of recovery of economic growth and competitiveness. For instance, paragraph 46 states that the best way out of poverty is labour. At the same time we see no decrease of unemployment. If labour is really the best way out of poverty, why is there no link with the subject of reallocation of labour?”

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.”

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:

  1. We got the first draft of the German NRP through our contacts to the German Bundestag.
  2. We commented on the draft as a team, with colleagues responsible for policy against poverty, for employment policy, policy regarding persons with disabilities, European policy etc.
  3. We confronted the desk officer responsible for the NRP draft in the ministry of economics with the participation conclusions of the European Council from 2010. There was no answer to our written request. After a phone call, he “allowed” us to send a position paper.
  4. Together with the Protestant Church in Germany, we sent the position paper to the desk officer within the ministry of economics.
  5. We sent the position paper to our regional colleagues so that they could use it in their dialogue with the politicians at regional (Länder) level.
  6. We were invited by the German social democrat parliamentary group in the Parliament (Bundestag) to discuss the participation of civil society in the process of developing the NRP and the main issues the NRP should consider.
  7. The final version of the NRP didn't take our main criticism into account, as it kept the only indicator of long-term unemployment as a sign of poverty, and the social chapter in the NRP was very small.
  8. We requested a structured and transparent dialogue for civil society participation, by writing to the federal minister of economics and to the federal minister of labour and social affairs.
  9. Regarding the second European Semester, we were invited (along with other social NGOs) by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs for an exchange about the second NRP. The officers presented the state of play of their planning of the NRP. We talked about the critical points - these points were nearly the same as for the first NRP.

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 to do if the space for participation remains insufficient?

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.