The intergroup opened its meeting to mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty with a key note speech from Emmanuel Macron, former French Finance Minister.
In his speech Mr Macron recalled the fact that human rights and the right to a dignified life are at the heart of the European identity, these principles are present in the European Charter of Human Rights.
In today’s society poverty and social exclusion are on the rise: as a result of the crisis, as a result of the transformation of economies and also because of geo-political events. The question that needs to be asked is what can be done to fight against this increased poverty?
The crisis has illustrated our incapacity to provide a coordinated response throughout society and Europe to the problems. Collective decisions have been taken but the outcomes have destroyed certain social balances and contributed to greater social exclusion. The recent influx of migrants and refugees onto European soil has resulted in questions being raised by our societies about our social models. However not everything is only related to the EU and the individual Member States, the transformation of our capitalist systems is a global phenomenon. In this respect globalisation creates imbalances much more quickly than in the past, it creates incredible potential but can also very quickly destroy entire sections of society. It is this societal polarisation of both our societies and our economies which creates more inequality and attacks the jobs of the middle classes and which favours the metropolitan over rural areas. It also creates new types of inequalities. This means that the education, political and social systems of our societies are more deterministic than before, and it enables our society to more easily be broken apart.
New types of inequalities are being created but not necessarily the answers of how to solve them. Western democratic societies are built upon the principles of an adequate political but also social and economic system. In contrast the current global market economy is creating inequalities which are threatening our democratic systems. Brexit and the positive reception to Donald Trump’s proposals are a result of our current incapacity to explain our economic and social systems. Without finding ways to deal with these issues, both politically and economically, then our democracies are at risk of breaking down.
The public policies, such as health and accident insurance and pensions, which were created after the Second World War have needed to be complemented over the last 25 years, for example with the Active Solidarity Income (RSA) in France. Yet often those eligible for this extra aid are not accessing it. Be this because they do not know that they are eligible or because the application process is so complicated it has to be reflected upon how to ensure that those in need are able to access their rights. The simplification of current systems is often necessary. It is also essential to better respond to people’s needs. Old and young people need different help, as often do those living in urban or rural areas, access to housing is not the same thing as reinsertion into the job market. A more sophisticated system of differentiation in our social systems is required.
How can we more effectively fight against poverty and social exclusion? How can we conceive our economic systems differently so that social impacts are taken into account from the beginning, rather than having to be compensated for afterwards? It is only by looking beyond simply the macro-economic situation and putting those who live in poverty at the heart of the discussion about their lives that we can make progress. On the one hand it is important not to place blame on them, for being responsible for their difficult situation, and on the other hand it is essential to consult with them about what could be the possible responses to improve the situation: there needs to be a policy of recognition. Associations working on these issues need to be involved, as do municipalities. All sides need to listen and exchange to create much more pragmatic solutions. It is essential that the most deprived are able to make choices and mobility is key: to be able to have access to housing but also culture and transport, to enable them to have access to the same things as other members of society, for example education and employment and fair chances. As long as our education systems are deterministic then poverty will continue to be created. It is essential to give greater resources to those who have the least, to enable them to have a fair chance, be that those with little education or low income families for example. This can be changed on the political level but it must also change on the economic level. Today every company has a social and environmental responsibility if they want to exist in the long-term. Companies need to have a broader approach than a purely financial one, they need to ensure that everyone in their company has a role. To make this a reality innovative social and environmental policies will be required.
An animated question and responses session allowed certain notions to be clarified and further developed, for example what did Mr Macron mean by a deterministic education system, how to ensure that social exclusion policies are revived to guarantee social recognition, what role needs to be defined for the EU and what role for the Member States, how to manage current trends moving from permanent contracts to flexible ones, how to eradicate the problem of the working poor?
For Mr Macron immediate and long-term solutions are needed to provide social, political and economic responses to the problems of poverty and social exclusion. For all citizens to be represented in the political system then it is essential for all sectors of society to have a political voice and to actively contribute. Minorities need to be recognised and to be able to share their expertise. For Mr Macron there is a great difference between a flexible contract which means you can choose your working hours (and which is often preferred, particularly by young people) and people who have no flexibility and have to accept very demanding schedules and who can end up being working poor. The potential of the trajectory is key: someone can tolerate difficult and sometimes poorly paid conditions for a fixed amount of time, if they know that this experience will provide positive opportunities at a later stage. This is quite different to being trapped in a system where no positive evolutions can be foreseen. Policies are needed which will restore hope to citizens. The EU should react to redefine the common European norms which we want, work to create a balanced, fair society in the future. It is the definition of European norms and goals which will allow its voice to be heard on the international stage.
The first panel focused on the actions of civil society in the fight against poverty with Ivana Di Martino explaining what motivated her to run from Milan to Brussels to fight against child poverty and social exclusion, accompanied by a presentation from Lorenzo Sironi from Barilla, who supported Ivana on her journey. Ivana, a sociologist who is passionate about running decided to use her energy to support the food bank federation. She had been shocked to learn that 23 million children in the EU do not have access to food and felt an obligation to react. In May 2016 Ivana ran from Milan in Italy to Brussels (over 900 km in 13 days) to present her manifesto to representatives of the European Institutions. She was touched during her journey across Europe by all the “hidden heroes” who she met: people and companies that voluntarily give their time to help others.
Lorenzo Sironi presented the actions undertaken by Barilla, a company owned by the same family since 1977, working with NGOs and sponsoring actions like Ivana’s and explained why this is important for them as a company. Barilla has a mission for the future to be a virtuous and sustainable company and their motto is “give people food that you would give to your own children”. This ethos feeds into their actions on the one hand for example by donating pasta to food banks or running educational programmes to teach children about eating a balanced diet but also creating and contributing to networks and projects such as Ivana’s in order to fight issues which are important. Ivana’s message spoke to those responsible at Barilla and so they sponsored her journey and helped her to crystallise her message in order to ensure that it reached as many people as possible and helped her to create a logo.
A discussion followed about the moral implications of private companies being involved in deciding about societal values. For Barilla, there is a demand coming from the public for private companies to make CSR a priority and that these actions actually now affect the markets. The private sector can have a great potential to increase awareness and reach a large public with their actions.
The second panel provided testimonials from Lisa Mckenzie, an ethnographic academic focusing on poverty, and Isabelle Feutry who runs the ATD Fourth World holiday home in France called La Bise, which enables families who cannot afford to go on holiday to have one.
Lisa’s current work focuses on the grieving that inequality brings and the grieving for a life that those excluded might have had had circumstances been different. Her work tries to expose what is hidden in plain sight, often through the medium of photographs which can speak in a way that words cannot. In London there are currently many luxury apartment blocks being developed, which Lisa considers to be a form of social cleansing, as the poor are pushed out from their traditional neighbourhoods and luxury apartments, which are often not lived in full time, take their place. Society chooses not to see the poor who are expelled. Previously in the UK new developments were required to provide a certain percentage of social housing within a new development, but irrespective of this social segregation was ensured by the creation of a different entrance depending on whether you were a private or social tenant, meaning that the two sides never needed to meet. The government and local councils are offering people who are in need of social housing accommodation outside of London, as far away as Liverpool for example, without taking into account that for many of these people their entire support networks are in London and were they to relocate to Liverpool then they would be completely isolated. The alternative to accepting the social housing in Liverpool is often homelessness in the capital.
Lisa reflected on the outcome of the British referendum in June and the majority decision for the UK to leave the EU. For her it is not that the poor and lower class of Britain voted to leave the EU, rather that they voted to be seen and heard.
Isabelle Feutry presented the work of La Bise holiday home, a pilot project of ATD Fourth World to provide a place where families who normally would not have the means to go on holiday can come together for a family holiday in the Jura in France. La Bise can accommodate 5 families and 10 volunteers. ATD have created a “laboratory of communal living” where everyone present will learn together. La Bise is not a social laboratory, in the sense that there is no written report at the end which would be submitted to social workers or the children’s schools for example, which is a great relief to the parents who are used to being scrutinised in their every move. The point of these holidays is to provide an environment where the families are accompanied but free and not judged.
La Bise normally welcomes families where the children are in care. These holidays require a great deal of preparation: between the families, their social workers and the team at La Bise. Families make a financial contribution to their stay (in France holiday cheques exist for example for low income families) and the point of the stay is to place the family at the heart of the holiday and to ensure that children and adults are proud of what they have done. Many elements of the holiday are communal, the five families and ten volunteers live together in the house, they prepare the meals and eat together and do joint activities. However family time is also essential, afternoons when the families do activities, be it cycling in the woods, going fishing, arts and crafts, just as a family allows them to create common experiences. During their time at La Bise each family makes a photo album with souvenirs from their trip – important for their memories and to show neighbours, friends, class mates and social services what they did on holiday.
La Bise is part of a network in favour of holidays as a tool to fight against exclusion which was created after the 1998 law of orientation against exclusion which stated the right to be able to have a holiday. This political action aims to illustrate that by ensuring that everyone has the right to a holiday, which can help them to be able to support themselves, to decide how they want to live their lives, that it is possible to contribute to the fight against social exclusion and poverty.
Francine van Beneden, a member of ATD Fourth World who has in the past been homeless, explained how important her experience of participating in a holiday villa in Spain with her children during that time had been for her whole family and how much they had learnt about living together and the importance of culture in their lives during their trip.
The discussion at the end of the panel focused on the question of semantics, is ‘holiday’ the right word to be using, do people who do not work have the right to ‘take a break’? Lisa concluded with her belief that it is exactly the right word, as she is in favour of society rising up together with equality for all, rather than only a few deprived people being able to escape poverty and climb the social ladder.
The final speech of the afternoon was made by Marianne Thyssen, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility who came to discuss the proposal for a European Social Pillar. It has been proven that inequalities hamper growth and has negative impacts on the whole of society. This is why the Commission has set out to achieve an EU with a AAA social rating. The economic and social crisis has resulted in the EU 2020 strategy to reduce the number of Europeans at risk of poverty being the one which is most off course, but that is no reason to give up. The EU needs fair and balanced growth, with decent and high quality jobs and social protection.
The aim of the social pillar is to examine the existing legislation, tools and principles on employment, labour market, labour rights and social protection policy and to see where revisions are needed. Social policy needs to be fit for purpose and to provide equal opportunities, access to education, quality public services, the right working conditions and adequate social protection systems. Modern social protection systems must protect all, they must support the development of competences and skills as these are key for growth and opportunities. Adequate access to benefits, quality enabling services coupled with activation measures is required. Within the social pillar proposal there is a strong focus on fighting poverty and social exclusion, with a framework proposal principle to ensure access to adequate social protection such as minimum income, social housing, childcare, healthcare and long-term care.
It is important to recognise however that the EU does not have competencies in all these areas so the Commission will use the tools at its disposal as appropriate – through legislation, the European Semester, exchanges of best practices, establishing benchmarks in order to make progress.
In the question and answer session the issue of extreme poverty, notably the issue of homelessness, was raised and questions about how the Commission was going to deal with that as it is not covered in the social pillar.