The European Commission continues to place more attention to social services in its 2022 country-specific recommendations – their annual advice to EU national governments on economic policies, as part of the cycle of policy coordination known as the European Semester.

To understand what this advice means for social services, the European Social Network (ESN) has tried to bridge the gap between the issues local ESN members face in social services and how these are presented in the European Semester through the ESN European Semester Reference Group, which this year met in Brussels on 24-25 October. “Our reference group on the EU semester is an opportunity for those working in these public authorities to voice their concerns and discuss challenges with their European colleagues,” said Alfonso Lara Montero, Chief Executive Officer, ESN.

The 2022 European Semester and public social services

Whilst several of this year’s recommendations from the European Commission address social services, one of the questions for this year’s Reference Group was how to better balance social and economic policies. Reform efforts in areas related to social services look significant, relative to the scale and ambition of progress in other policy areas of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans, such as the green and digital transitions - however they are significantly smaller in relative terms. 

Opening the meeting, ESN CEO, Alfonso Lara Montero, highlighted recurring themes for social services from previous years which have also resonated in this year’s analysis including, amongst others, key focus on children’s and  long-term care services, homelessness services; access to quality social services and social care; shift towards a more community and home-based models of care; provide adequate funding by making a link between EU and national funds, innovation and structural funding and supporting the workforce and carers.  As ESN member, Lise Plougmann Willer, Director of Esbjerg Commune in Denmark said ‘What do we do if we don’t have the staff or the resources –if are we not able to solve these issues due to the current problems?’

Paul Copeland, Reader in Public Policy, Queen Mary University of London, presented the key findings from the cross-country analysis based on the questionnaire completed by representatives from social services in public authorities in 19 EU countries. This included the need to develop or strengthen comprehensive national strategies and frameworks;  develop and implement effective data collection and monitoring systems; ensure that systems of long-term care are adequately resourced, and expansion of community-based care should continue; tackle the lack of affordable housing as one of the main drivers of homelessness; and address mental health and the emotional wellbeing of children. The social services sector should also be supported to both attract and maintain adequate levels of staffing within all organisations. "Systems of long-term care remain under-funded and fiscally unsustainable. Meanwhile, the care profession is not a career we would recommend to individuals, as pay, working conditions and career progression are often poor," said Paul Copeland, Reader in Public Policy, Queen Mary University of London.

The discussion was enriched through a dialogue with the European Commission who shared views on future political priorities, EU funding programmes and technical support provided by DG Reform. "Activate yourself at national level – contact European semester officers to see how you can provide input / impact the Semester process," said Katia Berti, Head of Unit,European Semester, EMCO, DG EMPL, encouraging ESN members to be part of next year’s coordination cycle.

The EU Care Strategy and the European Pillar of Social Rights

ESN members also discussed the recently launched EU Care Strategy. Although they consider this to be  a very important  development, at the same time concerns remain. For example; Martins Moors Head of the Social Administration in Latvia highlighted the fact that people with mental health and dementia should have a special chapter in the care strategy. The EU Care Strategy will be monitored via the European Semester based on dedicated framework to be developed.

Members also discussed challenges and good practice regarding the implementation of selected principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) which was also part of the cross-country analysis undertaken by ESN. For instance, the voice of social services is crucial in the design and implementation of the European Child Guarantee, (part of the EPSR) given the experience they have gained through their concrete interventions to mitigate child exclusion and poverty at local level. Carmine di Blasio, General Manager of the Consortium of Municipalities in Atripaldi, Italy, highlighted the need to clearly distinguish between inherited child poverty and that which has emerged because of recent crises and address them adequately with strategies and funding.

Outcomes of the ESN Analysis

ESN’s analysis of the 2022 European Semester: ‘Putting People First: Investing in Social Services, Promoting Social Inclusion’ includes an overview of the issues impacting social services in local communities across Europe to support the European Commission in putting together future recommendations for national governments. Based on the themes raised by ESN members in their responses to our survey, key proposals are:

  • Ensuring that children in child protection are included in future EU care Recommendations
  • Making specific proposals to improve the long-term sustainability of social services and social care 
  • Putting in place strategies supporting the social services workforce recruitment and retention
  • Providing a set of integrated supports to reduce homelessness
  • A Care Guarantee for all that ensures everyone who has the need to can access care and support.