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Leadership in Europe

Ireland’s imminent EU presidency should embrace a seven-point plan for equalityHugh Frazer 

 

As the economic and financial crisis has unfolded, the social dimension of the European Union (EU), particularly issues such as poverty, social exclusion and inequality, have been relegated to a minor role in the debate over the future of the euro and the EU.  The burden of austerity measures has hit most severely those who are most vulnerable, has deepened inequality and has put the future of Social Europe at risk.  Not only have incomes fallen and unemployment risen but across the EU many social-protection systems and key social services have been cut just at a time when they are most needed.  This short-sighted and self-defeating approach needs to end.  As Fintan Farrell argued so cogently in the last issue of Village, a stronger Social Europe is essential both to address the growing poverty and social exclusion crisis and to ensure that in the future we build a more inclusive Europe with a successful and sustainable economy.  There is thus an urgent need for strong political leadership to rebalance the current political approach and to put social issues at the heart of the debate on the future of the EU and the euro.

During the last Irish Presidency of the EU the Government played a key role in strengthening the social dimension of the EU by strongly supporting the insertion in the Lisbon Treaty of the struggle against poverty and social exclusion and the promotion of children’s rights, as core objectives of the Union.  The Irish Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2013 is a real opportunity for Ireland to again provide such leadership and to insist that there cannot be increased economic and financial co-ordination without a simultaneous strengthening of Europe’s social dimension.  Furthermore it is in Ireland’s own interest to build support for a stronger social dimension as a means of escaping the narrow neo-liberal economic approach that has dominated the European agenda for too long and is evident in the bailout packages for Ireland and other countries.

There is already a solid basis for providing such leadership.  First, the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’ of the Lisbon Treaty states that “In defining and implementing its policies and activities, the Union shall take into account requirements linked to the promotion of a high level of employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health”.  As the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) pointed out in 2011 the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’ is primary legislation which “must be applied across all relevant Union policies and activities, including economic ones, by both the EU and individual Member States”. Thus, as the EESC and a number of academic reports have stressed, the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’, if effectively and properly applied, provides the basis for a major step forward to a more social Europe.

Secondly, the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy, which aims to achieve smart, sustainable and inclusive growth has, at least in theory, placed social objectives at the same level as economic and environmental goals.  In particular, it has adopted for the first time, as one of the EU’s five core targets, a target to reduce poverty and social exclusion.  Thus, at least until 2020, developing policies that ensure inclusive growth and reduce poverty and social exclusion should achieve as much attention as the EU’s other economic goals.

The problem is that the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’ and the social inclusion objective of the Europe 2020 strategy have yet to be effectively implemented and have, so far, been relegated to a very minor role.  For instance, analysis of the 2011 and 2012 rounds of the National Reform Programmes prepared by Member States and the 2012 National Social Reports, which are the main means whereby Member States report on their implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy, show that most countries give very limited attention to social inclusion and social protection issues and fail to make significant steps towards the achievement of the Europe 2020 social inclusion target.

There are a number of very practical steps that the Irish Presidency should take to ensure the implementation of the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’ and the social dimension of the Europe 2020 strategy and so begin to save Social Europe. The Irish Government could usefully take the following seven initiatives.

Firstly, the Government could announce that promoting the social dimension of the EU, in line with the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’ and Europe 2020 strategy, will be one of the core objectives of its EU Presidency.  It could also agree with the subsequent two Presidencies (Lithuania and Greece) that this will be a core theme of their trio of presidencies.

Secondly, the Government could institute a high-level political debate on the effective implementation of the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’.  It could do this in a number of ways.  In the first instance it could organise a conference to discuss how the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’ can be effectively implemented so that the EU’s common objectives are mainstreamed in all relevant EU policy areas.  In particular, this event could examine how the Horizontal Social Clause could be applied across the three priorities of the Europe 2020 strategy as well as the five EU headline targets, the seven flagship initiatives, the Integrated Guidelines for employment and economic policies, the preparation of National Reform Programmes, the implementation of the reinvigorated Open Method of Coordination on Social Protection and Social Inclusion and the new economic governance arrangements.  The conference could also examine how Social Impact Assessments could be more effectively used as a tool for mainstreaming social inclusion objectives across relevant policies.

The conclusions of this conference could then provide the basis for a political exchange between Ministers for Social Protection and Employment at a meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO).  This in turn could provide the basis for European Council of Heads of State and government to adopt a series of political commitments on the implementation of the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’.

Thirdly, the Government could use its Presidency to ensure that Member States are encouraged to give a much higher priority to strengthening social-protection and social-inclusion policies in their 2013 round of National Reform Programmes and that these are underpinned by effective National Social Report, which are real national action plans to strengthen social protection systems and to tackle poverty and social exclusion.

Fourthly, the Government could institute a debate as to how the ‘Horizontal Social Clause’ can best be applied in the case of bailout packages to Member States.  In particular the Government could promote the idea that the Troika (European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission) should explicitly apply social impact assessments before packages are agreed upon between the country and the Troika and before measures are adopted by the countries concerned to implement the package. Ex post facto social impact assessments are also essential to ensure that measures taken in this context have not resulted in increased poverty, social exclusion and inequalities.

 

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ifthly, faced by the growing impact of the economic and financial crisis on children the European Commission is due to publish a Recommendation on child poverty and well-being towards the end of 2012 or early 2013.  The Government could continue the initiative of the current Cypriot Presidency to build political support for the implementation of such a Recommendation and should ensure that there is a clear political endorsement of the Recommendation at the Spring 2013 European Council and the adoption of a work programme for its implementation.  It should also use the Presidency to ensure that child poverty is made a priority issue in the 2013 round of the National Reform Programmes and National Social Reports.

Sixthly, the European Commission is due to publish an assessment of the implementation by Member States of the 2008 Recommendation on active inclusion of people most excluded from the labour market, promoting a comprehensive strategy based on the integration of three social policy pillars, namely: adequate income support, inclusive labour markets, and access to quality services.  All the evidence available up to now suggests that implementation has been very limited, particularly in   ensuring adequate income support and access to quality services.  The Irish Presidency could ensure that there is a high-level political debate on the findings of the Commission analysis and should seek support at the European Council for the adoption of a set of political conclusions aimed at the more effective implementation of active inclusion and, in particular, at reminding countries of their existing commitment to ensure that minimum-income schemes are in place which guarantee an income sufficient to live life with dignity.

Seventhly, the Irish Presidency could launch an initiative to put the issue of growing inequalities at the centre of European policy debates and ensure that it becomes a key issue in the development of the Europe 2020 process and in developing responses to the economic and financial crisis.  For instance, the Government could organise a high-level conference, which would build on the European Commission’s December 2011 High-Level Conference on Inequalities in Europe and the Future of the Welfare State.  It could also use its role to urge Member States to give a much higher priority to reducing inequalities in the 2013 National Reform Programmes and National Social Reports.

Putting social issues at the centre of the European debate is vital to redress the current excessive and unbalanced focus on economic and fiscal consolidation.  It is also necessary to restore political credibility to the European project and to offer European citizens some hope that the EU can serve the interests of all citizens and not just a narrow economic elite.

None of this will be easy to achieve but, as this article has shown, the basis for developing a real initiative to strengthen Social Europe already exists.  What is required is real political leadership and the courage to challenge the prevailing economic orthodoxy.

It is vital that the Irish Government resists the temptation to take a low-key and minimalist approach to its Presidency and works hard to build a strong consensus on strengthening Social Europe. Such an approach will win widespread support amongst all those working to build a fairer, more inclusive equal EU.  It is in Ireland’s own interest.

 

Hugh Frazer is adjunct professor in the Department of Applied Social Studies at NUI Maynooth and is co-ordinator of the EU’s Network of Independent Experts on Social Inclusion, which advises the European Commission on social inclusion policies