The State of the Union address is the annual opportunity for the European Commission to highlight pressing challenges the EU is facing as well as announcing its future actions to tackle these issues. Unfortunately for social service directors across Europe, as with last year’s address, social policy issues were once again largely absent as a priority.
On 15 September Ursula von der Leyen gave her second State of the Union address as president of the European Commission. In her speech, von der Leyen praised the EU’s response to the Covid-19 crisis while raising concerns about the climate and the state of the social market economy. In response, the Commission plans to launch green, digitalisation and labour market related initiatives.
From the perspective of European Social Network (ESN) membership, there was a missed opportunity to progress with the momentum created from the Porto Social Summit and the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan towards creating a Social Europe.
Social policy is more than just employment
The European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) was mentioned in Von der Leyen’s speech, but only in relation to job creation:
“…the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights is so important – to ensure decent jobs, fairer working conditions, better healthcare and better balance in people’s lives.”
Similarly, other social policy initiatives were also tied to employment. For example, an Erasmus-style work experience programme, ALMA, to help young Europeans to find temporary work experience in another Member State and a European Care Strategy focused on improving work-life balance in the care sector.
These initiatives will provide a welcome impetus to reforming the labour market to be more sustainable and accessible. However, it is disappointing that social policy was presented through this restrictive lens. ESN has consistently pushed for a wider focus beyond jobs and will ensure that the point of view of social services as well as the needs of their population groups will be represented in the European Care Strategy.
Investment in social services is crucial
Social services carried an enormous burden and responsibility during the Covid-19 crises, ensuring that the most vulnerable in society received the care and support they needed. For example, the pandemic had a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of people in residential care in Europe. As such, the need for investment in long-term care infrastructure and workforce should have featured more prominently in the Commission president’s speech.
This omission reflects an overall lack of urgency from the European level to invest in the social sector in the recovery from the pandemic. As reported in our Funding Social Services Recovery publication, many social service planners at the local and regional level were not included in the planning process of the EU funded National Recovery and Resilience Plans. It remains to be seen to what degree they will be involved in the implementation phase once the funding is distributed.
ESN’s chief executive officer, Alfonso Lara Montero, commented that “the State of the Union address failed to acknowledge the need to fund and invest in social services reform as a crucial answer to the consequences of the pandemic.”
Initiating the discussion around funding
On 25 and 26 October, ESN will hold a social services resilience and care continuity seminar in Ljubljana, Slovenia where we will be discussing, among other topics, the question of how resources from the European level can impact social services at the local and regional level. Furthermore, the seminar will explore how social service planners and directors can steer their services to be more resilient to future crises.
European Commission (2021) State of the Union address