Development of Social Europe

Why is the EU important to anti-poverty groups?

  • Since 2000 the Lisbon strategy set the objective of making a decisive impact on poverty and social exclusion by 2010. In 2010 this was replaced by Europe 2020.
  • The EU can set minimum standards and rights – this has been increased through the adherence to the Charter of Fundamental Rights which has binding effect as part of the Lisbon Treaty.
  • It can be a source of funding for community development and anti-poverty projects and opportunity to participate in transnational projects and mutual exchange.

Social Europe: the History

Social objectives have not come naturally to the European Union which was originally conceived as a way to bind post-war economies together by breaking down barriers to trade and allowing free movement.

There has never really been a single European social model and the social models of Member States have developed independently. However, the majority of EU Member States adhere to general guiding principles such as redistribution through taxation; publicly funded and sometimes publicly delivered services; and a commitment to social rights and entitlements.

As these welfare states developed independently of the EU, national sovereignty in most areas of social policy has often been a contentious issue, with some states exhibiting an acute wariness of ‘EU interference.’

However, social policy has always been a part of the role of the EU almost from the beginning as the European Economic Community (EEC). Initially, reforms were influenced by concern for equal competition and workplace regulation at EU level, including gender equality, health and safety, protection against redundancy, etc. These related to the economic priorities of the Union. Progress in areas like pensions, service provision and social assistance was notably slower. From 1974-1994 there were three Poverty Programmes through which anti-poverty groups accessed funding from the European Commission to find innovative ways of addressing poverty at national level and also involved projects including between groups from different Member States.

Over time, EU social policy began to reflect the popular pressure to balance economic growth with social cohesion. Structural Funds have also played an important role through providing EU funding for social inclusion activities. The social dimension of the EU has been strengthened slowly over time by changes to the Treaties of the EU giving the EU a greater role in social areas.

The Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 incorporated the Agreement on social policy signed by eleven Member States into the Treaty establishing the European Community. This Treaty also provided the legal base for the European Commission to coordinate work by Governments on a range of areas including employment and social inclusion. This process is known as the Open Method of coordination (OMC). It is a ‘soft law’ approach as it allows EU Member States to work together on areas which are the responsibility of Member States and not the EU. In 2000 EU Member States agreed on the Lisbon Strategy. This gave equal priority to employment, economic and social goals of the EU (environment added in 2001). The main process for making progress on the Lisbon priorities was the OMC and this included a strategy for addressing poverty and social exclusion involving the preparation of two yearly the National Action Plans Against Poverty and Social Exclusion (NAPs Inclusion) by Member States. While there are difficulties in achieving concrete outcomes this coordination process has been important in keeping a focus on poverty and in gathering information and developing strategies, but has seen few concrete results in terms of policy change.

Recent progress in the area of social policy has been somewhat slow. However there has been the introduction of ‘combating social exclusion’ as an overarching objective of the EU in the Lisbon Treaty and the 2008 Recommendation on Active Inclusion which addresses adequate income, accessible services and a more inclusive labour market.

Since 2000 the EU has also began to produce the EU Social Agenda which outlines the EU’s social priorities for five year periods. It aims to mainstream the social agenda across different activities of the EU and not just the areas of employment and social affairs. The Revised Social Agenda 2011-2015 was published on the 2 July 2008.

2010, The EU Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion saw the end of the Lisbon Strategy and the beginning of Europe 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. These are the main EU Strategies for progressing the EU’s social policies since 2000 including on employment and social inclusion. An ongoing concern however is the continued emphasis on economic outcomes and their limited effectiveness in creating a more just and equal society.

Anti-poverty organisations continue to lobby and work with other allies in order to create the basis for a stronger social Europe.