Imagining a good life for everybody within planetary boundaries


The 30th anniversary of EAPN offers the chance to pause and reflect on past achievements, to reflect on the work done and to draw lessons for the ongoing struggle to eradicate poverty. To do that I want to present a quick ‘history’ of the development of social policy and the fight against poverty, in the EU, over that thirty-year period. At each and every stage of that history EAPN has been an active contributor helping to shape that story. I call on EAPN to remain focused on its mission to play an active role within a broad vision for societal transformation, to address the challenges of our time.  I will also look at current developments at EU level and assess what is at stake for EAPN and the fight against poverty.

The history of the development of social policy and more particularly the fight against poverty within the EU, can fit into three distinct stages: EU Poverty Programmes (1975 – 1994), the Lisbon Strategy – EU Poverty Strategy (2000 – 2010) and the Europe 2020 Strategy – mainstreaming social issues (2010 – 2020).

EU Poverty Programmes (1975 – 1994)

EU poverty programmes were delivered over this period. They financed a range of actions to fight poverty including research within member states. They worked to achieve some common understandings across Europe on the analysis of poverty and the factors needed to achieve progress in the eradication of poverty.  It resulted in the development and broad ownership of common definitions of poverty. It recognised that poverty affected all Member States and incorporated insecurity, marginalization, deprivation, and relative and absolute poverty, as well as agreed approaches needed to tackle poverty effectively such as, multi-dimensionality, partnership, and the participation of people experiencing poverty. EAPN grew out of these poverty programmes as the NGOs and associations involved desired a Network that could provide continuity and greater impact from their work. The limitation of an approach centred on poverty programmes however, was the lack of an overall framework to influence the more general social and economic policies that created the poverty the programmes sought to address.

In 1992 there was also two important Recommendations that set a context for future work in the EU on Social Policy. The first identified commonly held objectives (“guiding principles”) with regard to social protection and referred to “organize regular consultation with the Member States on the development of social protection policy” (Council of the EU, 1992a:II.2). The second pertained to the definition of common criteria to assure sufficient resources and social assistance in the social protection systems of the Member States (Council of the EU, 1992b). It was on the basis of this second recommendation that EAPN developed its work on adequate, accessible and enabling Minimum Income Schemes.

The Lisbon Strategy – EU Poverty Strategy (2000 – 2010)

When the European Commission moved to introduce the fourth EU Poverty Programme, the German and UK Governments took the Commission to court and won their case, that the EU Treaties did not give a legal base for EU poverty programmes. This shocking result led to a campaign which led to the adoption on the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) with an article that made social policy a joint responsibility of National Governments and the EU. This opened the way to the adoption of the Lisbon Strategy in 2000. Included within this strategy was a European Anti-Poverty Strategy using what became known as the Open Method of Coordination (OMC). Despite the awful name, this was a crucial development and was based on the adoption of common EU objectives in the fight against poverty and exclusion, which were followed up by the development of National Action Plans on Inclusion. In the same year, Common Indicators were adopted at the Laeken Council, in Belgium, which aimed to measure progress in meeting the objective to make a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty.

This strategy provided a very clear framework within which Social Ministries, and other social actors, including anti-poverty NGOs and people experiencing poverty could be active in developing programmes and activities in the fight against poverty within a holistic framework. In many countries this resulted in important practical developments to combat poverty. However, this strategy was marginalised from the main economic strategies and key decisions impacting the overall development model which lacked a clear social dimension.

The Europe 2020 Strategy – Mainstreaming Social Issues (2010 – 2020)

2010 was designated as the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. EAPN had lobbied to have this year designated to ensure follow up to the commitments that existed in the Lisbon strategy. One of the key outcomes of the year was the adoption of an EU target for poverty reduction, to lift at least 20 million people above the agreed at risk of poverty and exclusion indicator. 2019 also saw the adoption of the Europe 2020 strategy. The key advance in this strategy was social issues were mainstreamed into an overall EU strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The overall strategy was underpinned by an economic and social process (the semester – another horrible name) which included Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs). In most countries these CSRs included recommendations on social policy and the fight against poverty. So no longer was the social just left to social ministries and actors but also economic actors and had much greater visibility within the key actions of the EU. However, the price of this social mainstreaming was the loss of a detailed and distinct EU anti-poverty strategy and a social agenda.

The pressure to give greater visibility to the social face of the EU in the context of the loss of this distinct social strategy and more importantly in light of the social damage done by austerity measures that were introduced to deal with the financial crisis of this period, led to the adoption of  the  European Pillar of Social Rights (2017). The European Pillar of Social Rights expresses 20 principles and rights essential for fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems in 21st century Europe. The adoption of the Social Pillar at an EU Summit in Gothenburg, with such high visibility provides an important hook for the future EU social policy actions. The adoption in the same period of the UN Social Development Goals also provides an important framework going forward. 

Going Forward (2020 – 2030)

A key lesson to be drawn from this short history and one not lost on EAPN is that for a serious EU effort to address poverty and exclusion we need all three approaches at the same time: Poverty Programmes, An EU Anti-Poverty and Social Agenda and social issues mainstreamed into an overarching EU strategy. It remains a challenge to achieve that in the emerging architecture for future EU Actions. 

The European Green Deal and Just Transition package will be the key overarching strategy for the EU going forward. The launch of this strategy was accompanied by communications aimed at building a ‘strong social Europe for a Just Transition’.  However, this strategy is heavily dominated by environmental and digital transformation and it will take a major effort of Social Actors and Social Ministries to ensure social concerns are seriously mainstreamed into this strategy.

The development of an Action Plan to follow up on the European Pillar of Social Rights offers the opportunity to achieve something that might be the equivalent of an integrated EU anti-poverty strategy and social agenda. EAPN has a clear call that the Action Plan should include an EU strategy to fight poverty as the overarching goal and framework for the Action Plan with an ambitious poverty target. However, key to this will be to ensure the adoption of an appropriate EU target to fight poverty and exclusion that builds on and doesn’t undermine the common understandings developed over the last thirty years.

Trying to achieve something the equivalent of EU poverty programmes, investing in concrete actions and integrated systems to give meaning to the policy aspirations expressed in the Pillar of Social Rights or the Sustainable Development Goals, needs to be achieved in the context of the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework and the programmes and Funds that emanate from that Framework, including, Structural Funds (ERDF, ESF+) and the Recovery and Resilience Facility. To date success has only being achieved within the European Social Fund with the clear ear marking of funds for social inclusion and the incorporation of the Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived (FEAD) within the new ESF+, with its clear social inclusion logic. It is also hoped that the way trans-national exchanges will be organised under the new round, will have shades of previous community initiatives and the Equal programme, which managed to fund innovation in the fight against poverty with anti-poverty NGO involvement. It is also important to note that at least in some countries, the national plans, under the Recovery and Resilience Facility, include social initiatives and in particular funds to address housing and homelessness, one of the most important issues in the fight against poverty. Social NGOs will need to engage with these funds to ensure their potential to support inclusion actions are realised.

There are clearly possibilities for a stronger overall framework and approach going forward if social actors can press their case but also the worry that poverty and social policy might fall between the different approaches and strategies being adopted.

A broad vision for a good life for everybody within planetary boundaries.

This broad vision for a good life for everybody within planetary boundaries should inform the fight against poverty and exclusion and the work of NGOs going forward. We must work both within and outside the agenda setting spaces, in order to achieve a broad coalition needed to win the support necessary for such transformation. Time needs to be given for this coalition and advocacy building no matter how pressing the daily tasks of NGO and community organisations work can be.

Within that broad approach EAPN needs key targets that contribute to this overall vision that it can focus on. These targets are there and need to be built on, including, the achievement of guaranteed adequate income, affordable and accessible public services, participation of people experiencing poverty and tax justice. On the key issue of tax justice this will need to be pursued within wider coalitions but it is great to see this theme so strongly present in the work of EAPN.

A vision for social and sustainable development model needs also to be built on the fight for democracy which is an essential component in the fight against poverty and for equality and environmental justice. NGOs need to defend and hold to account; democratic, local, regional, national, European and International Governments and Public bodies. We have to insist that they meet their mission of social and sustainable societies, promoting social market economies and insisting on tax justice, redistribution of wealth, non-discrimination and equality. We also need to develop new thinking and new practices to enhance democratic participation. The fight for equitable social media platforms based on social values and capable to counteract crazy conspiracy theories, will be an important part of the fight for democracy.

We need to insist on a balanced Social Market Economy as is described as a key objective for the EU in the EU Treaties. The crisis of the last years and now the covid-19 crisis tells us we cannot live by free market economies alone. We need to defend the role of Public sector economy: in the provision of essential services, health, education, social services, housing, water, energy….

We need investment in a Social and Solidarity Economy. It becomes clearer that more and more people want more from their work than just financial gain. They want their work to contribute to the attainment of key values, community, equality, social and environmental justice. An investment in social and solidarity economy will enable: the generation of public/community wealth to reinvest in communities rather than private wealth, generate active economies in communities experiencing market failure, including  rural communities, the generation of local circular economies, and  the support of developments that are already happening in local communities.

We need a market economy that works for people and planet and promotes the innovation and insights that emerge through the efforts of private individuals. It needs to be built on a level playing field, working to support those who seek to respect social and environmental standards, rather than those engaged in casino capitalism. It needs to be framed within a market economy that pays living wages. Issues like financial transaction tax must be developed not only to generate new taxes but also to get control over how giant companies and conglomerates are operating at a global level. Social dumping, new forms of slavery, the combat of tax havens and tax avoidance, need to be central to making market economies work for people, societies and planet.

In short, we need to imagine a future for civil society as building the base and power needed to achieve the eradicating of poverty, equality, social and environmental sustainability and contributing to the transformation needed for our time.

Written by Fintan Farrell, a founding member of EAPN Ireland and EAPN Europe.

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