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.
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).
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.
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.
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 read this 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 generally 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 earlier, arguably to give appropriate time for feedback.
As Country Reports constitute are the basis on which 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”:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.