EU budget – First takeaways from leaked European Social Fund proposal

A leaked version of the next European Social Fund (ESF+) reveals the details of a highly anticipated proposal with a first in-depth insight into various provisions of the future financial instrument. The document with the draft regulations, which can be seen here, also provides the answer to a pertinent question that we have been eagerly awaiting: sixth months after the interinstitutional proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, underpinned by two years of preparations and advocacy by Social Platform and our members, how well is the Social Pillar reflected in the most important Fund to drive social progress across the EU?

Here are the first takeaways from us:

As a clearly positive element we note a strong overarching reference to the Social Pillar, with its 20 principles cited as guidance for actions under ESF+. The designation of at least 25% of ESF+ to social inclusion measures is an important commitment to a more social Europe. We also positively observe the earmarking for youth employment based on improved social indicators and a wider age range as basis for allocation, along with adequate references to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CPRD), family- and community-based care, work-life balance, and equal access to services. A clear reference to achieving the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, citing relevant Council Conclusions on the subject in exactly the same place currently occupied by the Europe 2020 strategy, is an uplifting point. It can be further strengthened by making explicit reference to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) building on the complementarity with the Social Pillar, while showing how social rights can support SDG targets.

The current draft proposal nevertheless contains a series of issues that are cause for concern. Firstly, the structural challenges cited in the beginning, with a focus on migration and demographic change, are not matched against adequate resources. The mismatch is particularly noticeable against the background of the identified challenge to address socio-economic integration of third-country nationals, who are not further mentioned in the 25% earmarking objective. We also note with concern lower amounts allocated to the Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) Programme and the Health Programme, despite the latter’s positive goal to mainstream health concerns and reduce health inequalities.

While the objective of streamlining the Social Pillar’s principles figure as a strong starting point, the ambition is weakened in draft Article 4 defining the scope of support. Whereas a strong focus on the labour market and employability may not come as a surprise, the inclusion of policy area “C” aiming to cover the third Chapter of the Social Pillar (social protection and inclusion) merges many priorities from different funds with the aim of increasing synergies, but with the persisting risk that the strengthened link to the Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) will not be able to adequately address social and inclusion challenges. With three to four CSRs per Member State largely dedicated to economic and fiscal concerns, and social challenges only selectively addressed, the social objective risks falling short of matching the needs on the ground in Member States. The inclusion of non-discrimination and equal opportunities, fully aligned with principles 2 and 3 of the Social Pillar as an overarching principle is a positive sign, but it would benefit from further clarifying language in line with the current ESF regulations (Article 8).

We also note that transition from institutional to community-based care is not part of a more clearly defined objective to implement the Social Pillar. This is a missed opportunity to promote the right to live independently and in a community, in line with the UN CPRD and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which have been ratified by all EU Member States. In addition, we note with regret that previously discussed measures to make basic services (to complement basic material assistance) eligible for funding to support their accessibility by people in vulnerable situations (in line with the Principles 19 and 20 of the Social Pillar) have been dropped from this proposal.

Regarding common definitions under draft Article 2, there remains a lack of clarity in the use of the terms “most in need”, “most deprived”, “(basic) material assistance”, “food assistance”, “material deprivation”, and “food deprivation”. The definition (or lack thereof) of “most deprived persons” is of particular concern; the current formulation would give Member States full flexibility to restrict the focus and leave out people in real need, overlooking the homeless.

Finally, we need to raise concern about the Partnership Principle, which in its current form clearly lacks teeth. This is at odds with the role of civil society to act as an enforcer of the Social Pillar. The Partnership Principle needs to be improved by sharpening the language in draft Article 8 of ESF+ regulations, matching it with a strengthened role for civil society to be an equal decision-making partner in ESF+ monitoring committees.