As the European elections loom, legislation addressing the root causes of poverty must move to the top of the agenda.
For decades, European Union member states have allowed people in vulnerable situations to fall through holes in the social safety net. The global pandemic, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the rising cost of living all demonstrate the importance of resilient schemes for social protection, which can safeguard everyone against current and future crises. It is unacceptable that in the EU today 95.3 million persons are estimated to live in or at risk of poverty—one in four of them children.
Minimum-income schemes are means-tested, non-contributory social safety nets for those without sufficient resources. Access to an adequate minimum income, in combination with enabling social services, is an essential lifeline for people without any other source of income or whose wages or benefits are not sufficient to survive and live in dignity. It is also covered under the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), which recognises the ‘right to adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life’.
The shocking reality is that far too many people in need of such support are excluded from access or find it simply inadequate for a life of dignity. Not one EU member state has a minimum-income scheme that allows recipients to live above the poverty line.
Moreover, 30-50 per cent of those entitled to support across the EU do not secure it. Civil-society organisations working directly with people experiencing poverty have found complicated bureaucracy and lack of information—not countered by active outreach—to be significant barriers to access.
According to Caritas Italy, only 44 per cent of families in poverty have received the minimum income. Caritas Spain reports that more than half of the eligible population—Spanish households in severe poverty with incomes lower than 40 per cent of the national median—have not received any information about how to apply. For those who were notified about their eligibility for support, nearly 11 per cent reported that the information they received was not adequate to enable them to apply.
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Failure of soft law
Over the last 30 years, soft-law measures have failed to eradicate poverty and social inequalities in Europe. At the Porto Social Summit in 2021, the EU institutions and member states committed themselves to reducing the number of people living in poverty by at least 15 million by 2030. Yet there has been no reduction in the last three years. This lack of significant progress is ultimately due to the absence of serious implementation and monitoring of the 1992 Council of the EU recommendation on social protection, the 2008 European Commission recommendation on active inclusion and the commission’s 2013 Social Investment Package.
Recent initiatives at EU level, in particular the 2023 council recommendation on adequate minimum income, recognise the shortcomings of current national-minimum income systems and formulate recommendations to improve their adequacy, coverage and take-up. Yet civil society has warned that this does not go far enough to guarantee the adequacy of minimum-income schemes and continues to call for an EU directive.
In March last year, the European Parliament echoed this call and adopted a resolution on minimum income, calling for a directive to address the cost-of-living crisis and to ensure schemes are accessible and effective for all. Civil-society organisations have conducted a legal analysis, making the case for a binding instrument within the competence of the EU. Before and after the June elections, the role of the parliament will be crucial, to press the commission to initiate a directive during the next mandate.
The Porto declaration agreed at the 2021 summit, the EPSR Action Plan published ahead of it and the recent council recommendation can provide a roadmap for member states to achieve adequate minimum incomes by 2030—if they show the political will. And some have enacted positive changes, with Spain introducing its guaranteed minimum income and Belgium endeavouring proactively to increase access to its scheme. France and Italy have however made regressive changes to their minimum-income schemes in 2023, increasing conditionality and reducing eligibility. People living in poverty should not be left at the mercy of changing political winds to live in dignity.
A directive on adequate minimum income can set a standardised framework which ensures the adequacy, accessibility and enabling potential of minimum-income schemes across the EU. It could establish a transparent methodology for setting, regularly reviewing and adjusting the adequacy of such schemes, to ensure everyone is living above the poverty line.
This should be accompanied by a human-rights-based, non-discriminatory approach to social protection, which recognises the challenges individuals face in applying for minimum-income support—such as difficult application procedures, lack of information, language barriers and poor digital literacy—and engages in outreach to identify individuals entitled to minimum income and to ensure they can avail themselves of this entitlement. A directive can also facilitate access to essential services and promote active labour-market inclusion for those who can work.
During the current five-year EU mandate, we have seen the potential of binding legislation in the fight against poverty with the 2022 directive on adequate minimum wages. Member states must now implement this but we know employment is not the only route out of poverty. If we are serious about achieving a Social Europe, the cornerstone must be social-welfare systems that keep people above the poverty line.
Social Platform and its members are calling for a framework directive on adequate minimum income in the next mandate. Representing 40+ civil-society networks working for Social Europe at the European level and thousands of civil-society organisations at the national level, we are asking all candidates for the European Parliament to endorse this call.
Given that poverty and social exclusion are the top concerns of voters ahead of the June elections, it will be important for social policy to be a priority in the coming mandate. And a directive on minimum income is the next step to make a tangible difference to the lives of people across Europe.
This is part of a series on a progressive ‘manifesto’ for the European elections