Tackling poverty and social exclusion is still an urgent political priority for the European Union, says the Commission in a new communication published today. In its Draft Joint Report on Social Inclusion, it analyses the new generation of National Action Plans (NAPs) on poverty and social exclusion drawn up by the Member States for 2003-2005. Although the percentage of the EU population at risk of poverty has dropped over recent years, there are still over 55 million people and one in five children at risk of poverty. One in ten children lives in a jobless household. Though important progress has been made, there is still much more to be done to achieve the Lisbon goal of making a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty by 2010.
"Member States must keep up the momentum and ensure that those most at risk do not suffer disproportionately from the slowdown in economic growth or budgetary adjustments. It is vital that Member States ensure a consistent link between their inclusion strategies and their economic and employment policies so that they are mutually reinforcing", said Anna Diamantopoulou, Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs.
The report, which reviews progress in implementing the Open Method of Coordination for social inclusion, shows that the average percentage of the EU population at risk of poverty fell two points from 17% in 1995 to 15% in 2001. It also shows that the risk varies widely across the Union, ranging from 10% in Sweden to 21% in Ireland. It tends to be higher for particular groups such as the unemployed, single parents, older people living alone and families with numerous children.
The Commission points to the emergence of new risks of poverty and social exclusion with some people in danger of being left behind by rapid technological changes. Young people leaving school without the necessary skills to cope with the transition towards a global knowledge society are a particular risk category. They now account for 18.5% of the 18-24 age group, down from 20.6% in 1997, though the figure is at least one in four in Portugal, Spain and Italy.
However, a clear message in the report is that poverty and social exclusion are not inevitable. Belgium, Germany, Portugal and the UK succeeded in reducing the overall risk of poverty by at least 3 % between 1995 and 2001. The NAPs show that investing in effective social policies alongside sound economic and employment policies pays off. In general, those countries that invest more in social protection, such as the Nordic countries, Luxembourg, Austria, Netherlands and Germany, have lower levels of poverty and social exclusion. The NAPs highlight many areas in which progress is being made and Member States can learn from each other and exchange good practice.
The new set of NAPs show significant efforts by Member States to "mainstream" the objectives of the social inclusion process by building them into national policy making. They are also extending and deepening the process at regional and local levels. There has been a much greater mobilisation of stakeholders such as NGOs in support of the process. The majority of Member States have made their strategies more ambitious by setting national quantified targets. Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal have gone furthest in setting clear overall targets for reducing the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The UK has set a quantified target for reducing the number of poor children.
Nonetheless, Member States still need to take greater account of the social inclusion goals contained in their NAPs when setting overall expenditure priorities, including Structural Funds spending. Several Member States need to set more ambitious and concrete targets for poverty reduction. There must be a greater role for civil society in implementing and monitoring the plans.
With the continuing global economic and political uncertainties facing the EU, the Commission recommends six policy priorities for the Member States over the next two to three years:
- promoting investment in and tailoring of active labour market measures to meet the needs of those who have the greatest difficulties in accessing employment;
- ensuring that social protection schemes are adequate and accessible for all and that they provide effective work incentives for those who can work;
- increasing the access of the most vulnerable and those most at risk of social exclusion to decent housing, quality health and lifelong learning opportunities;
- implementing a concerted effort to prevent early school leaving and to promote smooth transition from school to work;
- developing a focus on ending child poverty as a key step to stop the intergenerational inheritance of poverty;
- initiating a drive to reduce poverty and social exclusion of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
Today's report will form the basis of the joint Council/Commission report on social inclusion to the 2004 Spring European Council. The Commission emphasises the need to mainstream the EU's social inclusion goals in all relevant areas of Union policy. Above all, these goals must be consistent with the Broad Economic Policy Guidelines and the European Employment Strategy. Meanwhile, the new Member States will be taking part in the process from next year, when they submit their first NAPs on social inclusion.
The social inclusion process was launched at the Lisbon Summit in March 2000, where the European Council agreed that the number of people living below the poverty line and in social exclusion in the Union was unacceptable. It encouraged efforts to be made to improve skills, promote wider access to knowledge and opportunity and fight unemployment: the best safeguard against social exclusion being a job. They proposed basing policies for combating social exclusion on an open method of co-ordination.
The main areas for action as identified by the European Council are:
- promoting a better understanding of social exclusion through continued dialogue and exchanges of information and best practice, on the basis of commonly agreed indicators; the High Level Working Party on Social Protection will be involved in establishing these indicators;
- mainstreaming the promotion of inclusion in Member States' employment, education and training, health and housing policies, this being complemented at Community level by action under the Structural Funds within the present budgetary framework;
- developing priority actions addressed to specific target groups (for example minority groups, children, the elderly and the disabled), with Member States choosing amongst those actions according to their particular situations and reporting subsequently on their implementation.