Looking from the outside in, it would be easy to describe Europeans as affluent, highly educated and skilled. But look from the inside and this picture is not quite so rosy. Sadly, in every city, in every region and country, the best chances for anyone to get a good quality education, to develop the right skills and then access a good job with fair pay and social security, to ensure a good quality of life, still largely depend on where you are born and into which family.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic this simple fact has been brought increasingly to the fore – as new groups of people risk poverty and social exclusion, the new urban poor. Meanwhile, the issue of poverty and social exclusion has risen to the top of the public agenda, according to a recent Eurobarometer.
It’s against this background that the European Commission today unveiled its action plan for the European Pillar of Social Rights, which sets the tone for the EU’s social agenda for the next decade via three headline targets to be achieved by 2030:
- at least 78% of people aged 20 to 64 should be in employment, this includes a goal to halve the gender employment gap and increase the provision of early childhood education and care to support more women into the labour market;
- at least 60% of all adults should participate in training every year, this includes a target of ensuring at least 80% of adults have basic digital skills;
- the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion should be reduced by at least 15 million.
“Cities have been calling for a while now to transform the principles of the social pillar into action and make them tangible for all citizens,” said Bianca Faragau, Senior Policy Advisor for Social Affairs at Eurocities. “Over the past two years, 65 Eurocities member cities have committed €14.5 billion to do just this – I’m pleased that these actions have been recognised and that the action plan is broadly supportive of local concerns,” she added.
Indeed, as Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, has previously acknowledged, there can be no EU recovery without a social recovery with cities at the core.
Setting the right priorities?
“What this action plan does not acknowledge,” explains Faragau, “is that affordable housing should be a priority in conversations about fairness and social progress. In the pledges shared by cities, housing was repeatedly cited as our biggest urban social challenge. It also misses a mechanism to combat poverty in the most deprived urban areas. Poverty has a strong territorial dimension and can only be addressed effectively through integrated approaches, such as ‘Local Pacts to fight poverty’ but this requires investment in people and in local social infrastructure.”
Recently, Eurocities has been sharing examples of what cities are doing to fight child poverty in particular. This has included cases like Madrid, where one third of households have experienced a drop in income due to the pandemic crisis, rising to 42% for families with children and 46% for single-parent households. And Ljubljana, which spends one third of its city budget on this one issue. Or Warsaw, which doubled its number of childcare places in two years.
“What all these examples have in common, is an understanding that poverty is multi-layered,” says Faragau, “and it cannot simply be reduced to separate issues. Children operate within a family unit, a school, a community. Similarly, poverty must be considered in terms of housing, residential area, work opportunities, access to social services, and so much more, all of which must come together at the local level.”
Unlocking social investment through EU funds – too little, too late?
The action plan calls on EU member states to make full use of the unprecedented EU funds available to support reforms and investments in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. However, with only a little over one month to go until the deadline for submission of the national recovery plans and with many member states already having submitted their draft plans, this arguably comes late in the process.
“Not only is this late but it lacks the ‘teeth’ for recommending a strong priority on social investments in the national recovery plans,” said Faragau. “Why not set a target for social investments as has been done for digital and green investments as part of the national recovery plans? To date, there is very little to zero focus on social investment priorities in most of the EU member states’ national recovery plans, so it might be too little too late. What is also disappointing is the lack of mention of local authorities to be involved in shaping the national recovery plans as firmly stipulated in the final resolution on the Recovery and Resilience Facility” she added.
Next steps: Get cities involved in the EU Social Summit
All eyes are on May, as the EU Social Summit, a key ambition of the current Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU, will take place and should see EU and national leaders endorse this action plan on the social pillar.
“City leaders are committed to be partners of the EU and member states in driving social Europe forward and putting people at the centre,” commented Maarten van Ooijen, Chair of Eurocities Social Affairs Forum and Deputy Mayor of Utrecht. “We are ready to do more to deliver social rights for all people, but we need to be recognised as key partners and given a seat at the Porto Summit.”
Cities are allies in pushing the European Pillar of Social Rights forward and have already proven their commitment with real actions on the ground. Thanks to cities’ commitments, there will soon be more than 82,709 new, affordable housing units in cities, some of which have recently been delivered. Even where cities do not have formal competences, such as minimum wages or minimum income, cities like Barcelona and Glasgow are innovating via incentives in social clauses in public procurement to push for a living wage, and piloting basic income projects for the most deprived neighbourhoods.
“We are more determined than ever to build more inclusive cities and drive a fair, inclusive and sustainable recovery from this crisis,” concluded van Ooijen.