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Give people what they want: A just and inclusive Europe

Alva Finn is Secretary General of Social Platform.

This summer was meant to be our first normal one since 2019. But for too many, due to rising cost-of-living, a return to normal has become a pipe dream.

As the largest leading organization fighting for social justice, Social Platform’s civil society members represent Europe in all its diversity, and they’re reporting the bloc’s citizens are being hit hard, especially those who are in vulnerable situations and on low incomes.

Older people are struggling to pay energy bills, single mothers aren’t able to buy milk for their babies. Overall, this autumn and winter are shaping up to be breathtakingly dire for many.

As with most problems, however, there are solutions if the political will is there to adopt them. This year’s State of the European Union (SOTEU), the bloc’s flagship event, will perhaps be the most crucial in its history, and with European elections just around the corner, the Commission may be more mindful of what people really want — a just and inclusive Europe.

Far from just grandstanding, this is a speech that lays the foundation for the coming year’s work. But it has, all too often, focused on the out-of-date “jobs and growth” paradigm, without much time given to the bloc’s social state. In the face of multiple crises, including soaring cost-of-living, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rising energy poverty and the consequences of climate change, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has an opportunity to make this year’s speech relevant by putting concrete social solutions on the table.

A recent Eurobarometer survey shows that at 38 percent, many want the fight against poverty and social exclusion to be the EU’s top priority. It also shows that 40 percent are reporting they have experienced a drop in their standard of living, and around 60 percent are saying they aren’t ready for rising energy and food prices.

Von der Leyen now has the chance to show that the soul of Europe really does lie in shared values, solidarity and social cohesion.

This year, the EU is likely to take unprecedented decisions regarding wealth redistribution related to windfall profits of the energy sector and other measures including caps. This is a welcome shift in thinking away from harmful austerity, but to properly address systemic poverty and social exclusion in Europe, a minimum income directive is needed.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen now has the chance to show that the soul of Europe really does lie in shared values, solidarity and social cohesion | Pool photo by Johanna Geron/AFP via Getty Images

Poverty in the EU is widespread, affecting one in five people. But the statistics also hide an important truth — people in vulnerable situations are much more likely to live in poverty. It affects 30 percent of those with disabilities, compared to 19 percent of those without, and 80 percent of the 12 million Roma living in the EU.

A directive could stop people slipping into poverty and give them back buying power — even when they’re not working. This would be beneficial for both society and the economy, especially in times of crisis and as we face up to the potential opportunities and pitfalls of the green and digital transitions.

Von der Leyen will likely speak at length about the war in Ukraine as well, and we can no doubt expect strong proposals to increase pressure on President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and address Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas.

However, as with the pandemic, we’re once again seeing why an empowered civil society and nonprofit sector are important actors during times of war and peace.

ILGA-Europe and Transgender Europe are helping the LGBTI community flee Ukraine and gain access to medicines crucial to living their authentic lives; Caritas is helping run a family sponsorship program to help families find their feet; the International Federation of Social Workers is setting up community social work centers; EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe partnered with Airbnb to help those with rare diseases find suitable short-term housing; and Save The Children Romania is delivering vital, immediate support to mothers and children. The list goes on and on.

Tens of thousands of national, local and regional organizations are doing the lion’s share of the solidarity work, and often with little or no extra resources.

This SOTEU is an opportunity to pave the way for an EU Solidarity Strategy on Ukraine that moves beyond short-term planning, and brings together existing measures that keep communities and institutions across the bloc engaged, coordinated and supportive.

This moment in Europe’s history is critical if we are to truly build a more resilient, socially just and inclusive Europe, and make substantial progress in ensuring a decent life for all people.

The EU says it’s listening. I guess tomorrow we will find out.

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