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The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the pertinence of advancing care services to address the growing demand across Europe. To achieve quality social and care services, adequate EU funding is vital. But what EU funding is available to support social services? And what is the impact of such funding on public social service authorities and providers? At a roundtable discussion in the European Parliament hosted by MEP Pedro Marques, members of the European Social Network (ESN) discussed these questions while detailing critical developments in new models of care.

We heard from members of the European Parliament and representatives of the European Commission, who shared their insights on recent European policy developments. At the same time, ESN members at the sharp end of delivering social services discussed the challenges and opportunities related to using EU funds.

Rebuilding Post-Pandemic Social Services

Spain’s Secretary of State for Social Rights, Ignacio Álvarez Peralta, outlined new models of community-based care made possible by the EU's Recovery and Resilience Facility. Some of the changes introduced in the post-Covid environment include more support for vulnerable children, deinstitutionalisation programmes, the use of home equipment supporting telecare, and the promotion of social innovation by the third sector. Social Services Directors from Slovenia and Italy also shared examples of social innovation projects from their respective countries. For instance, Rok Zupanc, Regional Director for Zasavje’s Centre for Social Work in Slovenia, stated, “EU funding is addressing social issues in Slovenia through the development of a long-term care system for all age groups, increasing the accessibility of care.” At this moment, long-term care is receiving the most investment in Slovenia, as it will be one of the oldest societies in Europe by 2050.  Regional Director for Social Inclusion, Ornella Guglielmino from Lazio, Italy, explained that EU investment initiatives have allowed her region to co-finance social services and healthcare, supporting sectors left ill-protected after the pandemic.

Building New Models of Care

Emphasising the significance of the recently published European Care Strategy, MEP Frances Fitzgerald highlighted the growing need for community-based care, stating that there is now an opportunity to address community challenges and solutions from an EU perspective. MEP Fitzgerald suggested that the EU must fund research to gather data at European level to provide information and guidance across EU Member States, stimulating the European-wide exchange of best practices. Additional measures highlighted were having targets for long-term care like targets for childcare, while also identifying an essential role for the European Parliament in monitoring the implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Facility from a social perspective.

EU Funding Opportunities for Social Services

In the past, social services were not prioritised in the allocation of EU funds. However, due to the societal impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, priorities have shifted as energy prices soar and refugees flee Russian aggression. The European Commission’s Director for Funds, Ruth Paserman, outlined some of the new and existing initiatives that are being used to tackle the problems revealed by the recent crises. The ‘European Social Fund’ helps to address social inclusion-related challenges; the ‘European Regional Development Fund’ used to develop social service infrastructure; and the ‘Recovery and Resilience Facility’, designed to mitigate the economic and social impact of Covid-19. However, Trees De Bruycker, Director of Social Services in Ghent, Belgium, stressed the need for long-term investment programmes stating that there are no quick solutions to social issues.

ESN is a partner in one new initiative: ‘The Helpdesk for Social Services and EU Funds.’ Ms Paserman highlighted the importance of this project to facilitate partnerships between managing authorities and social services, supporting them with comprehensive guidance on access to funding. The Helpdesk project aims to reach social services at local level and provide information on how EU funds may be used.

Future Outlook

To conclude the discussion, ESN’s CEO Alfonso Lara Montero stressed that “the responsibility to protect vulnerable people lies with public authorities.” For public authorities to achieve this, Alfonso stated that EU funds are a crucial incentive for European countries to ensure care services are more resilient, person-centred, and brought closer to the community. Still, many challenges in the use of EU funds remain.