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Amidst the economic, political, societal climate, and demographic challenges Europe is currently facing, during its six-month European Union Presidency, Belgium put forward an agenda with extensive social priorities. As Hungary prepares to assume the next term, it is worth reflecting back on Belgium’s social policy priorities during its presidency.

Reinforcing social Europe

A prime example of Belgium’s commitment to forging a more social Europe came during the high-level conference on the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) in La Hulpe on 15-16 April. The conference declaration’s was clear: ‘Achieving a Europe that cares, prepares, and protects’ is essential.

However, the lack of acknowledgement of regional and local authorities in the declaration is symptomatic of their broader lack of participation in the European Semester process, which represents a setback in Europe's social progress, especially since these authorities are the ones directly interacting with vulnerable populations such as older people, people with disabilities, children, homeless people, refugees, and survivors of domestic abuse.

Involving local public services in the European Child Guarantee

The Belgian Presidency’s commitment to advancing children’s rights was also something of note and was welcomed by ESN. With national governments currently reporting on the implementation of the European Child Guarantee (ECG), in response, the Belgian Presidency organised a conference from 2-3 May, providing a forum for sharing insights and best practice. While significant, the conference missed an important opportunity to discuss in detail the key role of local public social services in delivering high-quality care to vulnerable children. The presidency efforts can only be translated into reality if regional and local children’s social services are empowered to contribute to the discussion. With their first-hand knowledge of the regional and local incentives to the full implementation of the ECG, they have a huge contribution to make.

In its response to the European Commission’s consultation on the Child Guarantee, ESN reiterated the key role of local public social services in the implementation, monitoring and support of the ECG. Additionally, ESN suggested that the focus on childcare should extend beyond early years to include specialist child protection services that take care of the most vulnerable children, specifically those supported by child protection and social services. This area will be central to ESN’s annual seminar on child protection and partnerships across services, which will take place from 30 September to 1 October in Bucharest, Romania. The seminar will bring more than 120 professionals together to discuss how to put in place coordination across universal and specialist services to protect children.

Securing social progress: the way forward

In the aftermath of the 2024 European Parliament Elections, it is yet unclear how this will translate for future social inclusion policy priorities. As the leading social services network in Europe, ESN will continue to support and collaborate with both the upcoming Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament to ensure social policies remain pivotal in shaping Europe's future direction.

The Belgian Presidency prioritised aiming for a social Europe. However, what happens next will determine if a truly inclusive social Europe has a chance of becoming a reality.