RECENT EU FIGURES indicate that over 120 million people across Europe were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2012. Forty-three million were unable to afford a meal with meat, chicken, fish, or vegetarian equivalent, every second day, a WHO-defined basic need.
Food poverty poses a particular risk to children. It can adversely affect their brain development, their capacity to learn and their future health. A particularly severe form of deprivation is homelessness, which affects an estimated four million people across Europe, including 5,000 in Ireland.
If Europe’s core values and aims are to mean anything, then we must take action at European level to tackle these challenges. Indeed, we will not make progress towards the ‘Europe 2020’ target of reducing the numbers at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 20 million without tackling these challenges.
The difficulty to date has been that the primary purpose of the main EU instrument in the field of social policy, the European Social Fund, is labour market activation. This obviously is not the most immediate concern of someone who does not have enough to eat, who is homeless, or of a child. And certain member states, such as the UK and Germany, have in the past challenged what they see as any encroachment by Europe into member states’ social prerogatives.
Over the past 15 months, I have served as the European Parliament’s Rapporteur for a new European initiative that has sought to square this circle – to ensure that Europe meets its obligations to all its citizens, whilst at the same time respecting the treaties signed by all member states. I have worked with very committed officials in the European Commission’s Social Affairs directorate, MEPs from across the political spectrum who sit with me in the European Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee, with the 2013 Irish and the Lithuanian EU Presidencies, and most importantly with a host of Irish and European-wide anti-poverty NGOs, ranging from Crosscare in Dublin to FEANTSA, which represents housing NGOs, including Focus Ireland, at European level.
The outcome of our combined efforts – the new European Fund for Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) – was adopted by the European Parliament on 26 February, by 592 votes to 61 with 31 abstentions. It is now scheduled for approval, without debate, at the 10 March meeting of EU Social Affairs Ministers.
Four main features
With a total budget of €3.8 billion, the seven-year FEAD programme has four main features.
Firstly, it will help fund national and/or local NGOs that provide non-financial material assistance, such as food and/or clothing, hygienic products etc, to materially deprived persons, particularly the homeless and children living in extreme poverty.
Secondly, it will help fund social inclusion measures that are already supported by many of the NGOs that provide non-material financial assistance, such as helping some who is homeless find their own home. Such measures were previously not eligible for EU funding, but that is now changing.
Thirdly, it will support the creation of a European-wide platform for the exchange of best practise on tackling extreme deprivation. This will enable NGOs and policy-makers in Ireland and across Europe learn from each other, and help keep this issue on the EU’s agenda.
Fourthly, it will work in tandem with other key European policy objectives, such as promoting healthy eating, reducing food waste, and supporting local produce.
Tackling extreme deprivation and promoting social inclusion
I would be the first to admit that, at €3.8 billion, FEAD’s budget is nowhere near sufficient. But this amount is approximately 50 per cent larger than that originally proposed by the Commission in 2012. And it must be stated that FEAD is not, and is not meant to be, a substitute for well-developed social inclusion policies that are required in all member states. FEAD is intended to support and improve national policies, not replace them.
Irish NGOs will now receive over €20 million from FEAD. At the insistence of the European Parliament, the Department of Social Protection must now work with key stakeholders in designing, operating, and monitoring the national plan to implement FEAD in Ireland.
Past EU actions in this area were primarily concerned with simply distributing surplus CAP stocks. FEAD is a qualitatively different programme. It is the first time Europe is putting in place a dedicated programme aimed at tackling extreme deprivation and promoting social inclusion in all Member States. FEAD is a broad and progressive ‘people-centred’ initiative that does, I believe. have the potential to help us confront extreme deprivation in Ireland and all across Europe in the years ahead.
Emer Costello is the Labour MEP for Dublin. Follow her on Twitter @emercostello