Social crisis topping the agenda – reactions from EPSCO

Joint reflections from Alva Finn, Social Platform Secretary General, and Sabrina Iannazzone, Policy Officer for European Anti-Poverty Network.

Last week Social Platform and European Anti-Poverty Network attended a turbo charged EPSCO informal meeting – aka the ministerial meeting of social affairs and employment ministers – in Prague. 

Like many institutional meetings, sometimes EPSCO meetings can lack energy. Not so during this EPSCO with hefty, geopolitical issues like energy poverty and welcoming Ukrainian refugees on the agenda that are causing a social crisis across Europe that is set to worsen this winter. 

During the first session on integrating those fleeing the war into the labour market, we were positively impressed by Member States’ solidarity and integration measures in support of refugees. However, we also raised the risk for double standards for refugees from other countries and backgrounds, in terms of access to essential services, social protection schemes and funding. 

Chair of the EMPL Committee, Dragos Pislaru, gave a rousing plea encouraging us to look at the welcome that we have given to Ukraine and to apply that energy to reviving migration policy. Social Platform presented the work of some of our members at national level including a national member of ENSIE in Poland and Caritas Bulgaria to highlight the role played by civil society, not for profit service providers and social economy enterprises in welcoming and integrating refugees. 

The following day, we heard about the perilous situation that many in Europe find themselves in due to rising inflation and energy prices. What was encouraging was the sheer effort and resources that social and employment ministries in Member States were exerting to help people cope. Some, like Germany, had already raised the minimum wage, an early implementation of the groundbreaking minimum wage directive. Some, like Bulgaria, established fixed prices for gas. Many Member States raised their social protection benefits, social energy tariffs for those on social welfare, they funded NGOs to get empower people to learn more about their energy consumption and subsidised renovation and energy efficiency, decarbonisation plans, energy pumps, etc. 

The European Anti-Poverty Network has been raising the alarm about energy poverty in Europe for years. In times of multiple crises (cost of living, inflation, and energy prices), we believe that the EU must find the right balance between emergency measures and structural investments contributing to the reduction of energy poverty. We support the adoption of targeted measures reaching those who live in the most vulnerable condition, rather than providing general support with no income redistribution angle.

It was clear though that an EU-wide approach to the energy crisis was the only solution in the long term and we’ll be watching energy minister meetings closely over the next few days to see if they will be able to decide on sustainable common solutions which may meet social and climate targets at once. We need to put in place emergency measures such as energy price caps, windfall taxes on energy profits and income support for the most vulnerable while putting in motions as well long-term solutions that will support our continent to transition from fossil fuel use while addressing and eradicating energy poverty.