Things are looking up for social rights – but will everyone benefit?

Last week the European Commission launched its European Semester Package – the governance framework that allows EU Member States to coordinate their economic and social policies. The package confirms the positive developments we see in the economy throughout Europe, with growth that has now reached all Member States and recovery that is speeding up. The situation in the labour market is also improving, with employment rates increasing and unemployment rates decreasing. After many years, poverty and income inequality have stopped growing.

However, a more nuanced analysis of numbers shows that the economic recovery is not benefitting people equally.

The middle class is being squeezed, poverty remains unacceptably high – with its depth and persistence on the rise – and wealth and income are increasingly concentrated among a small percentage of the population.

With stagnating wages and increasing precariousness and in-work poverty, employment is not always enough to protect people from hardship. Equal opportunities and effective and adequate welfare systems are fundamental tools for inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies, but the capacity of our social protection systems to address these challenges is deteriorating. When the social elevator stalls, the wealth gap gains importance, validating the perception that millennials will be the first generation since the Second World War to do worse than their parents

The situation is very fragmented with large differences between and within Member States, some performing definitely better than others, but the risk is that the economic progress we see will benefit only a small segment of the population

Why does this matter?

Social and economic inequalities prevent nations, communities and individuals from flourishing. We know that inequalities in income and wealth and lack of social mobility undermine social cohesion, harm physical and mental health, damage the social fabric, cause economic stagnation, and ultimately fuel political instability, corroding our democracies and delegitimising the European integration process.

The political consequences of inequalities are the most serious ones and are becoming increasingly evident across Europe, election after election.

Solutions have to be based on a mix of re-distributional measures, such as progressive taxation, adequate social protection and quality services and pre-distributional solutions, such as higher minimum wages.

This means that every worker, irrespective of his or her type of contract, should have access to quality employment, receiving remuneration equivalent to at least the level of an adequate minimum wage and having full access to social protection; every person not working and not getting income support from other sources should be entitled to a guaranteed minimum income set at an adequate level; and everyone should have access to quality, affordable and accessible services.

It also means changing the perception of spending on social policies from a cost and a burden, to an investment in people and the future, and subsequently allocate adequate resources for it.

We will continue to advocate for these principles to be put into action in the European Pillar of Social Rights, and we were proud to be able to raise them in front of EU Heads of State and Government on behalf of social civil society organisations at the EU Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Sweden on 17 November. Read our key messages here, and read our press release here.

The fight against inequality is a vital one that will require a joint effort. Civil society organisations are a key partner in this fight. Not only do we work for people who live in vulnerable situations, providing support and services on the ground, but we also work with those people, promoting knowledge, agency and participation.

That is why, in a context of increasing distrust in institutions, non-governmental organisations are recognised as the most legitimate actor, especially by those segments in our societies that increasingly feel left behind.

If the EU and its Member States acknowledge the growing public unease caused by inequality, and accept to build a meaningful and structured partnership with civil society organisations, it will be possible to heal the splits that have emerged in our societies and to rebuild confidence in government and politics. More importantly, we will be able to deliver what people in Europe are clamouring for: more equal societies, in which wealth, income, power and opportunities are evenly shared, and in which everyone has his or her place, gaining control over their own lives and fully participating in society.