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On 22 November, the European Commission published the 2018 Autumn Package of the European Semester, the first step in the annual cycle of economic and social policy coordination between the Member States and the Commission.

The Commission’s Annual Growth Survey (AGS) is the principle part of the Autumn package. Within the AGS document, the Commission sets out general economic and social priorities for the EU for the year ahead.

Top priorities according to the Annual Growth Survey

The AGS starts by stating that the EU economy has been growing steadily, with unemployment at 7.5%, close to its pre-crisis level. While poverty and social exclusion have started to come down, the recovery is not reaching all parts of society. The Member States are taking steps to better integrate disadvantaged groups into the labour market. However, there should also be a push to fight the rise in inequalities. Though this is not directly addressed by the AGS, high levels of inequality reduce the economy’s output and the potential for sustainable growth.

The recently endorsed European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) features strongly in the AGS. The Commission advocates for the Member States to use the EPSR as a compass for social policy guidance. The greater emphasis placed on social issues, connected to the principles of the EPSR, is a welcome development, considering that ESN has been calling for greater priority for social issues in past Semester cycles.

When outlining social priorities, the AGS highlights the need for adequate benefit systems to support those who lack sufficient resources. The AGS also notes the need for affordable, accessible and quality services such as childcare, education, housing, health and long-term care. The provision of social housing and housing assistance is also singled out as essential for protecting vulnerable people from homelessness.

Building on this, the Commission promotes the combining of employment and social integration measures which can help all vulnerable groups. Furthermore, the AGS states that many people face barriers to the labour market, including discrimination or a lack of adapted work environments for people with disabilities.

Nevertheless, the AGS highlights that structural reforms remain incomplete in many Member States and that delivery on the Country-specific Recommendations (CSRs) is too often patchy. This has been highlighted in ESN’s recent report on the European Semester alongside questions as to whether the CSRs are biased towards macroeconomic discipline, deficit reduction and social inclusion through employment. Therefore, the Group members demand that further attention be paid to the persistent risk of increasing inequalities and reconciling the priority of deficit reduction with an adequate level of social spending.

Looking beyond employment to support social integration

Throughout the AGS document, the Commission strongly links employment with social inclusion, stating for instance that employment “remains the best vehicle out of poverty and social exclusion”.

ESN has long argued in our work on the European Semester for a broader view from the Commission on social inclusion which goes beyond employment, a message which remains relevant for the 2018 AGS.

Despite this, the 2018 AGS refers more directly to the need to promote the quality and accessibility of a range of other support services. ESN hopes that the Commission will continue to give priority to social issues in the next steps of the 2018 European Semester, whilst cautioning that responses to social issues should not be intrinsically linked to employment.

ESN welcomes the Commission’s acknowledgement of the need for the Youth Guarantee to enhance its effectiveness by reaching out to the young people who need it the most. In an article I published in the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ I argued for the Youth Guarantee to be reinforced with a care guarantee, specifically designed for disadvantaged young people such as early school leavers, young offenders, young migrants and young people leaving care.

Connecting Europe with local communities

ESN has been analysing the European Semester since 2014, through a Reference Group which represents local public social services. The latest annual report: ‘Bringing together Europe and local communities: Social services priorities for the European Semester 2018’ produced on the basis of the Group’s input, highlights that significant local challenges remain despite improving macro-economic conditions. This analysis will provide valuable information to the Commission on the social situation at the local level across Europe, as it prepares the next step of the European Semester, the country reports, which will be published in February 2018. An overview of the report’s key messages is available here.

Finally, the AGS calls for a strengthening of the role of national parliaments and social partners as governments prepare their national programmes. However, the Commission makes no reference to the involvement of regional and local authorities. A lack of consultation with the social affairs departments of regional and local authorities has been identified by ESN’s Reference Group on the Semester as a key reason why there might not be adequate implementation. Taking into account that social policies have been decentralised to regional and local authorities in most Member States, this is an issue that should be addressed with a view to improving implementation and creating more ownership of the process.