Towards stronger social rights across Europe

While the Europe 2020 strategy of growth and jobs sought to considerably reduce poverty and exclusion across the EU, social policies are struggling to hit their targets. With three years remaining, “there is still time to make a tangible difference to people’s lives by making bold changes and by investing our resources wisely”, said FRA at a social affairs conference in Malta on 24 March.

The event, organised by Maltese Presidency of the EU, brought together Social Affairs Committee Chairs from across the EU. It sought to take stock of Europe 2020 policies and propose ways forward from a social perspective.

The economic and financial crisis that swept the world dented efforts to reduce poverty, acknowledged Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, head of one of FRA’s research departments, in his keynote address. However, looking ahead he spoke of the need to increase efforts to tackle poverty and outlined why.  

For example there are widespread income inequalities across and within Member States. This status quo is unsustainable in democratic societies for growth to be inclusive. This is backed up by public opinion polls: Over 80% of Europeans agreed that a free-market economy should go hand-in-hand with a high level of social protection, with almost a half citing social equality and solidarity as a future major global challenge.

In addition, there is also the duty to respect and protect fundamental rights. Here he referred to the Agency’s recent survey results on Roma which revealed shocking living conditions: 80% continue to live below the at-risk-of-poverty threshold of their country; and every third Roma child lives in households that face hunger.

Mr Dimitrakopoulos then mentioned how the EU is responding with changes to the European Structural and Investment Funds, and a proposal for a new European Pillar of Social Rights. For example, funding now depends on including efforts to promote fundamental rights such as combatting social exclusion.

He continued by describing the new pillar potentially as a real ‘game changer’ in promoting and protecting rights based on human rights standards. However, for this to happen any instruments derived from the Pillar would need to take a legally-binding form. Therefore, any resulting laws or policies should be based on a thorough assessment of existing laws to ensure they can make a real difference to people’s lives. There should also be clear policy targets which are regularly monitored. In addition, Member States should strictly adhere to any new measures with support from the EU where needed.

He also underlined the need to raise rights awareness among the people of Europe, particularly those who are currently most excluded. Such awareness would empower those at risk of discrimination and inequalities.

Taken together, such efforts should help ensure respect for fundamental rights is further strengthened as a basic pillar of EU law and policy. This will also reflect the fact that the “EU is not just a union of states, but a union of people, granting rights to citizens and individuals,” said Mr Dimitrakopoulos.