New momentum for care? Unpacking the new European Care Strategy

Published this September, the new European Care Strategy sets out, for the first time, the EU’s vision on access to quality care throughout the life cycle.

Widely anticipated, this Strategy is a positive step forward for both carers and those receiving care. The Strategy is also accompanied by two Recommendations for Member States: on the revision of the Barcelona targets on early childhood education and care, and on access to affordable high-quality long-term care.

The publication of this Strategy comes at an important time. After decades of inadequate funding of an undervalued sector, Europe faces a lack of affordable, available, accessible quality care services where and when people need them. This urgency is why Social Platform and many of our member organisations have been so active and vocal in contributing to the wider debate, giving input to a call for evidence and successfully influencing the European Parliament report on the same topic.

Although the European Commission has taken on board many of the demands from civil society, the Strategy stops short of some of the ambition we had called for. Below, I unpack how the new Strategy and Recommendations can influence the lives of all those relying on and providing care.

European Care Strategy

The right to care and independent living is not always guaranteed. Population ageing and parallel labour shortages caused by poor working conditions, precarious jobs and poor wages, have all had a profound impact on the sector.

The new Strategy acknowledges these challenges, as well as the disproportionate impact the lack of investment in care has on certain demographics. Women and migrants are particularly affected, taking on the vast majority of these precarious, under paid positions. Women are also the ones who overwhelmingly provide informal care. However, while it calls to prohibit all forms of segregation, it still doesn’t go far enough in identifying the barriers and intersectional discrimination that many groups face in being able to access their right to care.

At the core of the Strategy, is the call to boost access to quality, affordable and accessible care services and improve working conditions and work-life balance for carers. It highlights the importance of investing in care – including through various existing EU funds – and asks Member States to support informal carers with income, training, and respite care services.

To monitor the care sector across Europe, identify effective funding models and facilitate exchange of good practices, Social Platform and other civil society organisations had called for a Care Platform, made up of representatives from Member States and European social partner & civil society representatives. This recommendation was not taken on board, but the Commission states that it will continue working with relevant stakeholders to facilitate mutual learning. It is important that organised civil society is part of this work.

Council recommendation on access to affordable high-quality long-term care

It is disappointing to see that the recommendation stops short of setting EU targets and indicators for long-term care. As indicators used for monitoring long-term care vary between Member States and the data is often not available or comparable, the recommendation instead asks Member States to each develop a national framework for data collection and evaluation, supported by relevant indicators.

It also foresees working with the Social Protection Committee to establish a framework of indicators for monitoring the implementation of the recommendation. While this is a step forward, it comes more than 20 years after the setting the EU Barcelona targets on ECEC. This displays an only slowly emerging political will to jointly address the increasing challenges in the long-term care sector.

The need for common quality standards on care services across Member States is championed by Social Platform and wider civil society, who have called for more ambition on raising the standard of care. While this Council recommendation does set out a list of quality principles, these principles don’t specify any way to measure them, probably due to the lack of comparable data.

On a positive note, the call for Member States to develop national action plans on long-term care within a year of the recommendation’s adoption reflects what we as civil society are pushing towards. Member States are also asked to nominate national long-term care coordinators, which is a welcome addition to support the implementation of the recommendation and the cooperation between EU and national levels.

Council recommendation on the revision of the Barcelona targets on early childhood education and care (ECEC)

Overall, we were pleased to see many positive revisions of the ECEC targets. The recommendation asks Member States to increase the participation target of children under 3 in ECEC from 33% to 50%, as well as increasing participation of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as those at risk of poverty or social exclusion, as well as children with disabilities. The proposal for greater national investment in quality ECEC and a general focus on quality, inclusive, non-segregated ECEC is also very positive. Additionally, we welcome the proposal for Member States to introduce a legal entitlement to ECEC from the end of the parental leave period. This would support ensuring provision for all children.

The recommendation does not suggest national action plans or national coordinators for the Barcelona targets, as it did on long-term care. However, Member States are asked to inform the Commission about measures taken to turn it into reality within one year after adoption, including as part of their reporting on implementing the European Child Guarantee (in the context of which they were also called to create national coordinators). It also reminds Member States of the national quality frameworks which they are encouraged to develop in line with the Council Recommendation on High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care Systems. Additionally, it describes two welcome quality criteria to be covered in these quality frameworks: improving staff-child ratios and group sizes as well as supporting the professionalisation of all ECEC staff.

Next steps

EU Member States will now negotiate on and hopefully adopt the two Recommendations before the end of the year. Afterwards, they will need to show the political will to turn the Strategy from words into action for better access to quality care for all who need it.

Want to know more about the Care Strategy?

Many of Social Platform’s members have also been very active on the Care Strategy. To read their expert reactions, follow up on the debate on Twitter through the hashtag #EUCareStrategy!