EU Commission sets economic and social policy agenda

The European Commission’s Annual Growth Survey 2013 aims to set the tone for Member States’ policies under the Europe 2020 process for ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ next year. It is once again dominated by the poor economic situation in much of Europe, but there is no commentary on progress (or lack of it) towards the five key Europe 2020 targets adopted only two years ago.

‘Tackling unemployment and the social consequences of the crisis’ is one of the five priorities identified by the Commission. Unemployed young people are seen as a key target group: reduction of early school-leaving and facilitating the transition from school to work are among the measures cited. ESN would like to highlight the importance of targeted support for vulnerable young people such as care-leavers or those with a disability, who may also have experienced early school-leaving. In addition, the vision of ‘childcare’ only as a way to facilitate parents’ labour market integration is disappointing: high-quality childcare has proven long-term benefits for child development and is especially beneficial for children from a disadvantaged background.

The Commission also notes that “long-term unemployment is increasing” and advises governments “to step up active labour market measures.” It later prescribes “more personalised services” or‘one-stop-shops’ as a means to strengthen the link between social assistance and (labour market) activation services. One-stop-shops tend to be seen principally as a way of making different services accessible in one place, rather than as a tool for personalisation per se. There is scope here for the Commission to provide more precise guidance to Member States in the active inclusion report in 2013. In this context, “broad access to affordable and high-quality... social and health services, childcare, housing and energy...” remains one of the three pillars, alongside income support and inclusive labour markets.

This represents a disappointingly narrow understanding of the role of social services, as only relating to labour market activation. In reality, local and regional public social services deliver benefits and services to a wide range of citizens. Some citizens would already have been facing social exclusion prior to the crisis and may now be facing even greater difficulties. ESN wishes to see a broader understanding of the issues social services deal with in Member States’ National Reform Programmes and National Social Reports.

There is a welcome recognition of the ongoing pressure of population ageing, which had been strangely absent in 2012, despite it being the European Year of Active Ageing. This is an issue where there is greater scope to shift both social and health care towards an approach favouring prevention and rehabilitation.

In terms of public spending, the Commission judges it “essential to look at the overall efficiency and effectiveness of spending”, notably in employment services, social protection and health systems. Favoured measures include greater use of shared services and IT solutions and reform of public procurement. ESN members have cited co-production of services with citizens, a greater emphasis on rehabilitation/recovery and independent living in the community as other opportunities not only to help control costs, but also improve disadvantaged citizens’ quality of life and social inclusion.

Efficiency and effectiveness measures have to be seen alongside the reality of the tough austerity measures taken in some countries that are having a dramatic impact on public services for precisely those people at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The Commission’s belief that “fiscal consolidation should not affect the performance of social protection, employment services and health services” despite good intentions is proving wishful thinking, leaving Europe further away from its target to lift 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion by 2020. Indeed, the need to strengthen social cohesion and promote social investment in EU Member States was one of the key messages which emerged from the Annual Convention of the European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion last week (5-7 December).

ESN is hopeful that a still positive but more balanced and realistic message may emerge from the Social Investment Package in 2013. Here, the EU can make a coherent and persuasive case for investment in welfare, health, education and other policies not only for their own sake, but because they can help deliver smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

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