A step towards a more social Europe?
“European economic governance needs to be balanced by a social dimension,”stated representatives of the Churches in Europe at a meeting with the Irish EU Presidency in Dublin on 8 March.
With its recently presented Social Investment Package the European Commission has taken a significant step towards a more social Europe and, in this Package, presented an integrated policy framework. In the present economic crisis, unemployment, poverty and social exclusion levels have reached record highs. This has led to significant pressure on the social protection systems, a pressure intensified by the consequences of demographic change, with the size of the working-age population shrinking and the proportion of older people in society continuing to grow.
Social investment is key
The Commission emphasises the need to modernise social policy with an eye to effectiveness, efficiency and, not least, financing. It reiterates that welfare systems have three functions: social investment, social protection and stabilisation of the economy. Moreover, the impacts of social policies are not only intended to be immediate but also long-lasting.
Well-designed welfare systems, in which social investment covers a broad area and the protection and stabilisation functions are combined, increase effectiveness and efficiency and also have a positive effect on a sustainably fairer and more inclusive society. According to Commissioner Andor, social investment is key “if we want to emerge from the crisis stronger, more cohesive and more competitive. Within existing budget constraints, Member States need to shift their focus to investment in human capital and social cohesion.”
Integrated policy framework
The Commission’s declared objective with the Social Investment Package is to create a framework for policy reform to strengthen social protection and to promote participation in the labour market and in society. Social protection should be adapted to ensure its adequacy and sustainability, investing in individuals’ skills and capabilities and helping them at all critical points in their lives. The bishops of COMECE have again and again called for this kind of comprehensive look at social policy, most recently in their declaration A European Community of Solidarity and Responsibility (No. 16).
The centrepiece of the Commission’s package is the Communication Towards Social Investment for Growth and Cohesion – including implementing the European Social Fund 2014–2020. This is accompanied by various working documents drafted by Commission staff with concrete proposals for measures in areas such as: demographic and social trends; a follow-up on the implementation of the Commission’s Recommendation on Active Inclusion of People Excluded from the Labour Market; a report on social services of general interest; long-term care in ageing societies; homelessness in the EU; investment in healthcare, and social investment through the European Social Fund (ESF).
Child-friendly social investment
The Commission places particular emphasis on the situation of children (i.e. persons under 18 years of age); therefore the Recommendation Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage has been included as part of the Social Investment Package. The Commission’s suggestion is that the Member States should develop and implement policies to combat child poverty and social exclusion and to promote the well-being of children. The basic principles include supporting parents’ participation in the labour market, including by means of a better balance between family and work, and through adapting the design and eligibility criteria of child care services to increasingly diverse work models.
The Commission also emphasises the importance and potential of early childhood education and care in relation to social inclusion and development. According to the Commission, parents should be supported in their role as the main educators of their children during their early years. In addition, the capacity of education systems should be developed, in order to “break the cycle of disadvantage, ensuring that all children can benefit from inclusive high quality education that promotes their emotional, social, cognitive and physical development” (p. 8). Going beyond formal education as addressed in the Recommendation, the Commission should not underestimate the equally important role of informal education. In its informal education work, the Church, with its organisations, provides a broad range in the fields not only of child and youth education but also adult education. Here it aims particularly at disadvantaged groups among the population and makes new opportunities available to people who have dropped out of formal education systems. Church education work follows a holistic understanding of education. It aims at personal development of the individual and promotes the imparting of values and social skills and seeks to equip people to be able to face the challenges they encounter in life.
Implementation of the Social Investment Package
The Commission strongly urges the Member States to take the Social Investment Package guidelines into account when revising their national programmes. It has declared that the reform of social protection systems and a stronger focus on social investment and active inclusion will be taken up in the country-specific recommendations and in the forthcoming European Semesters. However, the Package is not legally binding on the Member States. The European Social Fund is regarded as the central financing instrument for social investment.
A step in the right direction
In view of the great many points discussed in the Social Investment Package, it is hardly surprising that it offers ample room for subsequent (critical) discussion, to which participants from the Church will be able to contribute their expertise based on practical experience. Social investment can play a central role in strengthening social cohesion. The fight against increasing poverty and social exclusion and against unemployment (taking into account the high level of unemployment among young people) is one of the greatest challenges facing Europe.
We will now have to wait to see whether the Package will mark the beginning of the expected shift in the Social Policy of the EU. Time will tell whether the Commission’s Package will have sufficient impact, especially in relation to the limited extent of current EU powers in the field of social policy. In the area of economic and monetary union, questions of social policy are increasingly playing a role alongside questions of fiscal and budgetary policy. It may be that the time has now come to give careful consideration to a fundamentally new distribution of powers between the EU and the Member States, as the bishops of COMECE have suggested in their declaration A European Community of Solidarity and Responsibility (No. 13).
Translated from the original text in German