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Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council Meeting

The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) met on 10th of March to discuss the 2014 European Semester guidance for employment and social policies and the debate on the mid-term review of the Europe 2020 strategy. The Council also adopted the European Fund for Aid to the Most Deprived and the Quality Framework for Traineeships. There was also an update on the assessment of the Youth Guarantee implementation plans.

European Semester guidance for employment and social policies

The Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion László Andor stressed the ongoing impact of the crisis and the vast divergence amongst Member States, especially in the rates of youth employment, income inequalities, and at-risk-of-poverty rates. The Council adopted the Conclusions on the Annual Growth Survey 2014 and the Joint Employment Report with a new scoreboard of key employment and social indicators. The Commissioner underlined that the scoreboard will monitor employment and social imbalances and will underpin the country-specific recommendations in the European Semester process in order to develop efficient social policies.

Thomas Dominique, Chair of the Social Protection Committee which is involved in the development and monitoring process of the scoreboard, pointed out the necessity of addressing poverty: “There are 6.7 million more people in poverty in 2012 than at the beginning of the crisis. Despite reforms, there are high social costs and all figures are alarming, especially the increase of people in risk of material deprivation, growing inequalities and the situation of young people.“ Recent developments in terms of living standards, income and poverty have been published in the 2013 Social Protection Committee annual report 'Social Europe – many ways, one objective'. The report underlines that the social situation in the European Union is not improving, while in some countries it is even worsening, with an increase in poverty in more than 1/3 of Member States, rising material deprivation and growing income inequality across and within Member States.

The European Social Network (ESN) has recently published the working paper ‘Responding to the economic crisis and austerity’ that explores the impact of the crisis on public social services at local level. Reductions in public expenditure have impacted on social services and their ability to respond to an increasing demand. The paper shows that, whilst there are similarities in the challenges faced by various countries, there are different responses to the changes. Some ESN members were able to reform and improve social services, whereas in countries most affected by the crisis, austerity measures and increasing numbers of service users have resulted in a shift away from an enabling approach towards a traditional model of welfare assistance and emergency support, such as food banks and social canteens.

Mid-term review of the Europe 2020 Strategy

Concerns regarding the poverty-reduction target in the Europe 2020 strategy were also expressed by Commissioner Andor during the discussions. The European Commission plans to review the Europe 2020 strategy in two stages this year: the first stage is the current assessment of the strategy, and the second stage – the conclusions by the new Commission, including the review of employment guidelines. Commissioner Andor presented a stock-take of progress on the Europe 2020 targets underlining that the progress on the headline targets is not good. The Council ministers considered that improvements of the social situation should come from employment and reduced poverty and social exclusion. In order to achieve this, ministers underlined that growth and social investment, particularly in children, young people and women, are needed. The implementation of active labour market measures (especially for long-term unemployed), skill-matching strategies, and structural reforms in social protection systems to address demographic imbalances are also needed.

Update on the assessment of the Youth Guarantee Implementation Plans

Commissioner László Andor asked Member States who have not submitted their Youth Guarantee Implementation Plans to do so and told the minsters to make necessary adjustments to the National Reform Programmes in the European Semester process in order to implement the Youth Guarantee Scheme. He stressed that the Commission is currently assessing the implementation plans and the results will be presented at a conference in Brussels on 8th April 2014. The plans will identify inter-sectoral measures to implement the Youth Guarantee Scheme. Some ESN members already implemented measures in local cooperation with employment services, education and businesses in order to address the individual needs of young people.

Proposal for a Council Recommendation on a Quality Framework for Traineeships

The Council adopted the Quality Framework for Traineeships, an initiative that supports the Youth Guarantee Scheme and puts an emphasis on transparency, learning content and fair working conditions in traineeships. Commissioner Andor called on Member States to implement the quality framework in their legislation, which will be monitored by the Commission.

Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived

The Council also adopted the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (€3.5 billion over the 2014-2020 period) which aims to provide emergency support for the most vulnerable, such as food, clothes and other material assistance to children and the homeless. For some ESN members, the Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived is a measure to address budgets cuts and an increasing demand in services. The Veneto Region in Italy uses the fund to establish effective cooperation between local actors of the third sector with public institutions and private actors to develop ‘new responses’ to ‘new needs’ that overcome the purely assistance-based welfare model and enhance personal skills.

Another ESN member, the Government of Catalonia in Spain, has been actively involved in the negotiation process of the fund with the European Commission, as well as in submitting amendments to the European Parliament through Catalan Euro MPs. These amendments were aimed to achieve a more active role of regional authorities in the design process and an operational programme for territories like Catalonia. The experience of ESN's member shows that regional authorities should fully participate in the implementation process of the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived within the national operational programme, which should involve all relevant stakeholders. An active involvement of the Government of Catalonia in the implementation of the European Social Fund has also led to an improved coordination of the fund.

Other topics at the meeting included an update on the Tripartite Social Summit on Growth and Employment, which is a forum of cooperation between the EU institutions and the social partners to be held on 20th of March. Ongoing legislative issues were also mentioned: posting of workers, the free movement of workers, supplementary pension rights and public employment services, as well as the implementation reports on the gender recast directive and two anti-discrimination directives.