On 18 May, the European Commission published its 2016 package of Country-specific Recommendations (CSRs) for Member States. Unsurprisingly, we find at their core macro-economic and fiscal considerations, with noticeable attention given to social services and vulnerable groups. Below, we give an initial analysis of the strengths and gaps of the 2016 CSRs.

Social issues in the 2016 CSRs: an overview

Except for Greece, which is under a specific procedure called the “stability support programme”, all member states have received CSRs, tailored-made policy guidance to support them in designing actions over the next months to ensure their adequate socio-economic development and financial stability.

Sustainability and adequacy of health and social welfare systems

The ageing population and the related demographic challenge are mentioned in most countries, as is the need to ensure the long-term sustainability of the pension and long-term care systems. Securing universal health coverage and improving or reforming social assistance were the object of recommendations in at least half of the member states, in particular the need to improve the coverage of social protection benefits. The importance of providing affordable childcare is a recommendation in four countries, whereas child poverty is only mentioned in the case of Ireland.

Administrative reform and regional disparities in delivering services

Estonia, Finland and Cyprus, among others, are or will soon be rolling out major administrative reforms aimed at improving the availability, provision and quality of social services (early childhood education and care and employment services are mentioned most often). These reforms should step up the efficiency of public administration through better resource allocation to the local level and by tackling the lack of well-trained professionals and quality standards. There are significant regional differences in public social services within the countries themselves. This is why the Commission issued recommendations to tackle regional disparities to countries such as Italy and Croatia.
Social services to support labour market (re)integration

Supporting the unemployed or the most vulnerable into employment is probably the recommendation that is shared by most countries. In relation to this, the Commission encourages a number of countries to mitigate the effects of increasingly precarious forms of employment, such as short-term contracts or the German “mini jobs”, which had been promoted in the past as forms of growing employment, but may have led to situations of precariousness and in-work poverty.

The European Commission recommends an integrated approach to employment and social services provision in order to deliver better support for the most vulnerable (e.g. the long-term unemployed, young people, migrants, Roma and women). This was also highlighted by ESN in 2015.

Social inclusion beyond employability: what the CSRs fail to address

The CSRs take account of the social component of “inclusive growth” (one of the main objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy). However, as is often the case, social issues are mostly seen through the lens of people’s attachment to the labour market, re-training and re-skilling. The term “poverty” only appears in two CSRs, for Ireland and Italy, whereas it is known that the national EU 2020 anti-poverty targets [aiming to lift at least 20 million people out of poverty or social exclusion in the EU] are nowhere near being reached in most countries. A number of vulnerable groups, for whom participation in the open labour market is particularly challenging due to complex needs and conditions, are absent from the CSRs altogether - for example people with disabilities and/or mental health problems. For them, the provision of comprehensive social support is key so that they can be fully integrated and actively involved in society.