As the European Commission (EC) approves the first national recovery plans submitted by Member States to access the Next Generation EU Funds, at the European Social Network (ESN) we have been spearheading an initial assessment of the plans with local and regional public social services to seek their views on national reforms supporting the next generation of children and youth.

Most national governments submitted their plans for recovery investments in April and May and the European Commission started approving the first batch of plans in mid-June in line with its two months deadline following receipt of the plans. EC president Ursula von der Leyen travelled this week to Lisbon and Madrid to personally deliver the Commission’s assessment of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) for Portugal and Spain, the first countries to submit their plans. Ms Von der Leyen highlighted how “the plan will help build a better future for the Portuguese people” as she handed the assessment of the Portuguese Plan to Prime Minister Costa.

However, a closer look at the 23 plans so far submitted to the EC raises a series of questions as to whether the investments proposed might fail the children and youth who are most vulnerable and have been most affected by the pandemic. Our initial assessment of the NRRPs suggests that while most include some form of support for children and families, there are large variations between countries.

There have been numerous, and difficult, challenges for children’s social services in their response to Covid-19. Our analysis of the impact the pandemic has had on the most vulnerable reveals that many children and young people will be affected significantly, and for a considerable time, by the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Our members working in local and regional authorities have reported a steady rise in the number of child protection cases in 2020 compared with 2019. The primary reasons highlighted for this were the effects of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health, increased prevalence in domestic abuse or children subject to abuse, and a decline in family income.

However, despite this, specific investments in child protection are referenced in just three NRRPs - for Italy, Spain, and Portugal - but mostly with a bricks and mortar focus on building up residential facilities for children who might need to be placed outside their biological families. This raises the serious concern of a new wave of institutional care rather than a focus on support in our communities.

Investment in education, however, is present in almost all plans, either through improvement of educational opportunities with an emphasis on helping children catch up after the pandemic or through investment in early childcare facilities, as highlighted in the plans in the Czech Republic, Greece, or Germany. Indeed, in Germany, funds allocated to this purpose amount to as much as 36% of all funds for social inclusion.

Yet, several ESN members indicated that their NRRPs lack educational support for children with cognitive or sensory impairments as it is the case in Romania, or for children with mental health issues, as in Latvia. Likewise, local organisations have highlighted that the proposals put forward to build early childcare facilities do not draw up plans to ensure that the new facilities accommodate children with disabilities in most countries.

Other children-focused supportive measures incorporated in the NRRPs include direct cash transfers to families with children, for example in Germany, or expanding the system of psychological support for children and young people, for example in Finland. Another is ensuring targeted responses for children from ethnic minorities, as the Spanish plan highlights.  

Still, it must be underlined that child-oriented objectives in many NRRPs are formulated in very general terms so it is extremely difficult to predict how they will be translated into concrete actions on the ground and what actual investments will be made.

However, something notably absent from almost all NRRPs are investments in child protection services. Domestic violence was already high before the pandemic and the prolonged lockdowns have only made it worse. Therefore, reform of early intervention and abuse reporting and identification systems alongside child-centred support programmes are key to ensure that the recovery leaves no child and young person behind.