THE UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON POVERTY and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, has called for an ambitious social Europe, and insisted that the pandemic must spark a rethink of economic and social policies.

“The devastating impact of Covid-19 serves as a stark reminder that the European Union must put human lives over economic policies that privilege competition between EU Member States” said Mr De Schutter, speaking ahead of the EU Porto Social Summit on 7 May.

The Porto Social Summit should endorse the Action Plan of the European Pillar of Social Rights, said De Schutter. Europe’s flagship programme for addressing poverty and social exclusion in the coming decade, the Action Plan commits the EU to reducing the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion by 15 million by 2030, at least 5 million of whom should be children.

“With over 90 million people and almost 20 million children at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the Union, the new target is insufficiently ambitious. It doesn’t come near the pledge of ‘no poverty’ made in Sustainable Development Goal 1”, said the UN expert. “Moreover, there are neither consequences for missing the target nor accountability mechanisms that people can use to hold their governments responsible for their commitment. The EU must demand that Member States develop realistic, transparent, and accountable national plans to meet these and other targets.

“The EU has reacted swiftly to the Covid-19 pandemic, lifting budgetary rules to allow Member States to spend above legal maximum levels, providing billions in loans and grants through the Recovery and Resilience facility and other instruments under the NextGenerationEU package, and making promising proposals to ensure children’s rights and gender equality. But more is needed if Europe is to move beyond these immediate answers to the crisis, and truly strengthen social resilience.”

In the EU, 20.9 per cent of the population, and 22.5 per cent of children, live at risk of poverty and social exclusion. An estimated 700,000 people in the EU sleep on the streets each night and 30.1 per cent of people with disabilities are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

“These are unacceptable numbers”, the UN expert said. “The challenge now is to ensure that measures taken to alleviate poverty in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic are not superseded by blind economic policies that privilege unhelpful competition in social and tax matters and impose stringent deficit controls.

“There is an institutionalised race to the bottom among Member States leading to lower wages and lower worker protections in the name of competitiveness. Nine million workers remain in poverty despite being employed, because of the growth of non-standard forms of employment and because wages are too low. The EU must address this harmful competition as part of its efforts to fight poverty and protect social rights.

“Since 2009, Member States have decreased their investments in social protection, health, and education, which means they were ill-prepared for this crisis. Until very recently, the EU itself had recommended many of these budget cuts to ensure compliance with its own budgetary rules. Although these rules have now been relaxed, I am concerned that countries that decide to increase their social investments thanks to the new EU recovery funds will be punished later, once EU rules on maximum deficits are reinstated. This would be a defeat for social rights.

“The EU must use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to rethink its fundamental economic rules. The Porto Social Summit and upcoming Declaration are a unique opportunity to generate a broad consensus for an EU-wide anti-poverty strategy that strengthens public services, combats homelessness, addresses in-work poverty, and ensures greater progressivity in taxation.”

* Source: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights