EU urged to make austerity U-turn to fight poverty



When a coalition of NGOs says that Europe is totally off-course to meet its own target to bring 20 million people out of poverty by 2020, this is not really breaking news.

But when such an acknowledgment of failure is made by EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso or EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, people start to pay attention.

This is exactly what happened at the third Convention of the European Platform on Poverty and Social Exclusion, which took place in Brussels at the end of last November.

Three years after the launch of the Europe 2020 strategy for a fairer and more prosperous EU, not only has poverty not been reduced, but it has actually gotten worse.

One in four European citizens, or 125 million people, are currently at risk of poverty. This represents a five million increase since 2010.

Speaking at the convention, Barroso admitted: “The situation is now worse than it was when the strategy Europe 2020 was adopted, back in 2010.”

Lieve Fransen, the Director for Europe 2020, is calling on EU member states to play their part in the fight against poverty: “We’ve put the legislative framework in place to win this battle, now it’s up to the national governments to enforce it properly by passing the right laws.”


Austerity is not the answer

But Barbara Hellferich, Director of the European Anti Poverty Network, disagrees that member states are to blame for the failure to tackle poverty in Europe.

She says the EU should have done more: “There’s an urgent need for a comprehensive strategy to fight poverty and social exclusion which encompasses education, employment and macro-economic policies. Also, more resources in terms of funds should be set aside,” she explains.

One of the major victories of civil society at the November convention was the decision to organise, yearly hearings at the European Parliament, where ordinary citizens who are experiencing poverty can have their say about what the EU should do to tackle it.

According to Józef Niemiec, Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC): “Not only have austerity and harsh budgetary cuts failed in fighting the crisis, but they have also worsened the social situation.

“The working age population has been most affected. Poverty and social exclusion among 18 to 64 year olds has increased significantly, mainly because of rising levels of jobless households.

“We call upon European leaders to make a quick U-turn and keep their promises to get Europe out of the crisis. Alternatives to austerity do exist. The ETUC proposes a New Path for Europe, a bold investment plan for creating quality jobs.”



Despite recent announcements that the crisis is over and recovery is on the way, poverty-hit Europeans are still taking to the streets.

After massive demonstrations in Greece and Spain late last year, a so-called ‘pitchfork’ movement has emerged in Italy, blocking roads and transport across the country.

During the last EU summit in December, thousands of protesters threatened to severely disrupt the EU leaders’ meeting. Protestors were demanding less austerity and more effective measures to bring Europe out of the crisis.

Nowhere have the consequences of European policies been felt more than in Greece.

It was the first EU member state to bear the brunt of austerity measures imposed by the Troika (the EU, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) and since 2010, poverty has risen dramatically in country.

Few people have been unaffected by the economic crisis in Greece, leading some to turn to right-wing extremism, while others have turned to art.

Greek director Dimitris Sofianopoulos, for example, recently made a movie with a stray dog as the main character, documenting the daily struggle of the people of Athens.

There are now hopes that Greece, which just took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, will use this stage to draw attention to the plight of millions of EU citizens who are hoping for an end to the widening gap between public discourse on poverty alleviation, and the actual reality on the ground.