As the Porto Social Forum convenes, two years on from the Social Summit there, it’s time to upgrade the EU social agenda.
In a context of rising inflation, stagnant salaries and soaring housing and energy prices, Europe is entrusted with finding new solutions, to steady markets and secure transitions, while combating poverty and social exclusion.
According to Eurostat, 95.4 million were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the European Union in 2021—an estimated 21.7 per cent of the population. The risk was greater for women (22.7 per cent) than men (20.7 per cent), while 22.5 per cent of Europeans with children fell into this category. European labour markets not only exclude a percentage of the population but do not prevent in-work poverty for many workers.
Faced with a plethora of challenges and adversities since the last European elections in 2019, the EU has reopened the debate on a stronger social Europe. Two years after the Porto Social Summit, the European Parliament this month adopted a resolution for a new roadmap, recognising the need to promote social dignity and inclusion as well as foster access to a quality labour market.
While good labour conditions and decent salaries are essential to tackle the rising cost of living, the goal of lifting millions of Europeans out of poverty is also paramount in this new agenda. Applying the recent European directives on minimum wages and pay transparency while launching pending anti-poverty mechanisms, such as a minimum-income directive, thus becomes necessary.
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In mid-March, the European Parliament adopted an important resolution on minimum income. This sent a clear message in support of such a directive.
Nowadays all European member states have minimum-income schemes but they vary greatly in design and application. There are also doubts as to their efficiency and the adequacy of established minima. These all fall below—in some cases well below—the at-risk-of-poverty threshold, which in practical terms means those receiving the minimum income cannot make ends meet.
Beyond the importance of adopting a new directive and raising the minimum income to the poverty threshold, the text adopted by the parliament makes key recommendations on admissibility, accessibility and coverage. Complementing minimum incomes with other social benefits, eliminating administrative barriers and implementing incentives to help the unemployed find a good job are also contemplated, to tackle the ‘non-take-up’ problem, fight in-work poverty and ensure access to quality posts. Moreover, the text includes the possibility of receiving the minimum income individually within a household, to prevent dependence or, worse, a perpetuation of the vulnerability associated with gender violence.
There is no doubt that the social summit of 2021 paved the way for the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights of 2017. As the follow-up Porto Social Forum convenes in the Portuguese city today and tomorrow, however, binding measures and further initiatives are required to achieve agreed goals—such as reducing the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion to at least 15 million by 2030, which the European Commission included in the EPSR action plan two years ago.
To tackle the social impact of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, new concrete targets, based on quality job creation and healthier workplaces, are priorities for discussion in Porto too. The full potential of the digital transition will only be accomplished if it ensures citizens’ wellbeing and safeguards workers’ mental health. Especially after the public-health crisis, new legislation to regulate the right to disconnect, curbing the mass surveillance of workers, controlling the use of AI at work and preventing the proliferation of psychosocial risks in professional settings are all on the EU ‘to do’ list.
Coinciding with the upcoming Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU, a window of opportunity has opened for Europe once again. It is a chance to rethink the European social landscape—to help the public pay their bills, achieve a life of dignity and navigate the transitions they face in a socially sustainable manner.