The European Commission continues to place more attention to social services in its 2019 country-specific recommendations.

In June 2019 the European Commission issued country-specific recommendations to the Member States though the European Semester. Whilst a number of recommendations address social services, questions remain on how to better balance social and economic policies. 

The Semester is an annual cycle of policy analysis and recommendations between the Commission and the Member States. It was launched in 2010 as a response to the financial crisis. Though not legally binding, the Member States have partially or fully implemented 70% of the recommendations between 2011-2017, indicating its importance.

Increasing Importance of Social Services

The growing importance of social policy in the Semester is quite recent, and is linked to the launch of the European Pillar of Social Rights in 2017. It includes 20 principles conferring rights to European citizens, which will be implemented through a combination of funding, legislation, and the Semester.

In 2019 the Commission issued recommendations specifically mentioning social services to eight countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Romania, and Spain) focusing on:

  • Improving integrated support through social, health, and employment services coordination
  • Improving the coverage and quality of social services
  • Improving access to quality and affordable long-term care, childcare, and housing

The recommendations correlate with analysis carried out by ESN’s Reference Group of leaders in social services. They highlight a lack of funding, shortage of skilled staff, unequal coverage, and a lack of integrated working as key issues to address to improve quality social services.

Balancing Economic and Social Policies

Despite the progress in raising the importance of social issues in the European Semester, economic considerations often continue to take priority, namely because the Commission can back-up economic policy recommendations through the enforcement of the macroeconomic imbalances procedure, with sanctions for Member States failing to address excessive government spending.

The Commission doesn’t have the same sanctioning power for social issues, regardless of how serious and persistent the problems. Our Reference Group refers particularly to challenges in ensuring access to quality social services, long-term care and housing for all.

Making Social Services a Priority

While there is talk of a ‘social imbalances procedure’ giving the Commission responsibility to address serious social issues, our European Parliament Elections Brief reveals that the priorities of social services are not high on the agenda for most European political parties.

To help make social issues a priority, we will continue to facilitate dialogue between local public social services and the Commission, ensuring the voice of social services is heard in European policy-making. With a new Commission led by Ursula Von Der Leyen, we await to see the future importance of social policies in the Commission’s priorities. 

Our 2019 European Semester report will be published in October. It will include country profiles, European level analysis and policy recommendations based on the work of our Reference Group.