On 16 September, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, held the annual State of the Union address at the European Parliament. Social policy issues were largely absent from her speech. This is worrying for public social services directors, who believe social policy is fundamental for the European Union’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

State of the Union Address 2020 misses social policy

In her first State of the Union since becoming President of the Commission, Ms von der Leyen presented the European Commission’s priorities for 2021. In her speech, von der Leyen pinpointed the economic recovery from the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic as the biggest priority for the European Union in the year ahead and mentioned the green and digital transformation of the EU as the cornerstones of the European Union’s recovery.

However, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the most vulnerable population groups, such as children, people with disabilities, homeless people and the elderly, was largely absent from the State of the Union address. This is of concern to public social services authorities across Europe, including members of the European Social Network, who note an exacerbation of pre-pandemic vulnerabilities and who are therefore calling for an increased investment in social services to try and meet the needs of Europe’s most vulnerable citizens.

Glimmer of hope in letter of intent

In her letter of intent to David Maria Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is currently holding the EU Council Presidency, von der Leyen refers to the Action Plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights, a European Child Guarantee, a New Occupational Safety and Health Strategy and an Action Plan for the Social Economy, as among the initiatives for 2021.

This provides public social services with a possible glimmer of hope that the European Commission intends to focus on certain elements of social policy to contribute to Europe’s recovery.

There is no Europe without Social Europe

In comparison to the Juncker Commission’s priorities, which leaned towards the establishment of common European social standards, such as the establishment of the European Pillar of Social Rights, it appears that this Commission has shifted to consider social policy a consequence of a larger economic-led recovery plan.  

While the EU’s effort should certainly concentrate on recovering from the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is equally fundamental to recognise the social consequences and that economic and social recovery go hand in hand. To make it happen, social services play a vital role. Only by including the protection of the most vulnerable in recovery plans, and encouraging Member States to do the same, can the European Union truly guarantee that no one is left behind.