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Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Social inclusion of families and EU policies : where do we stand ?
European Family Conference
Brussels, 14 October 2010
Ladies and gentlemen,
I wish to thank the Confederation of Family Organisations for inviting me to this conference and I congratulate them on their choice of subject.
Social inclusion is all the more crucial as the situation is dramatic. In today’s European Union, 84 million people are at risk of poverty. That is 16 per cent of the population. And 10 million of them are children. That is simply unacceptable in 21st century Europe!
What is more, those figures do not take account of the full impact of the crisis. When the new figures come out, they are likely to be much higher. Some put the number of people living at risk of poverty as much as 10 million higher.
The reality behind the figures is often much worse because poverty is something we tend to hide. Yet in Europe today, foodbanks are becoming an ever more common means of getting by for people.
As the effects of the economic crisis begin to bite and the recession tightens its grip, we are discovering that Europe’s families and children are paying a very high price.
National budget cuts are affecting schools, healthcare and child protection, while unemployment and job insecurity are undermining parents' livelihoods.
But if Europeans are to have confidence in their future, their children must grow up in healthy, happy, well-educated families.
In our new strategy for building the Europe we want to live in by 2020 — the Europe 2020 strategy — the Commission proposed an EU target to reduce the number of people living at risk of poverty and social exclusion by at least 20 million by 2020. That EU target is to be followed up at national level.
Setting targets for reducing poverty is crucial to ensuring the strategy succeeds and everyone can enjoy the social benefits of growth.
The poverty reduction target takes account of the multidimensional character of poverty, and covers three key areas:
Targets are our key instrument for spurring the Member States to action, but we need to go further. We need to look at what needs doing in practice and at policy measures that can have a decisive impact on poverty and social exclusion.
First, we need jobs with decent wages, decent working conditions, and flexible working arrangements that allow people to combine work and family life, especially given the ageing of our population and the need for more care for the elderly.
Secondly, we need to implement an integrated active inclusion strategy based on three pillars:
This active inclusion approach, which the Commission spelled out in a Recommendation back in 2008, is also important for tackling population change and promoting solidarity between the generations.
To give it a further boost, the Commission is working to have 2012 designated European Year for Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity.
Thirdly, policy to foster integration calls for efforts to combat discrimination and inequality, including gender and income inequality. The well-being of children and respect for the dignity of the elderly must be central to these efforts.
Fourthly, we need to give backing to networks like the European Alliance for Families in their efforts to support families.
Many Member States were — and still are — worried about their low birth rates. The reason seems less to be a desire for fewer children than the difficulty of bringing up a family in today's world. And a major challenge here is reconciling work and private life.
The fact is that many women still have to choose between having a career and having a family. Being forced to make a choice typically results in lower employment rates for women and lower birth rates too.
The countries with the highest birth rates in the EU today are those which grant most support for a sound work-family life balance through the provision of childcare and, increasingly, care for the elderly, family-friendly leave and flexible working-time arrangements.
We should remember that women account for the vast majority of part-time workers in the EU. 31.5% of women work part-time compared with only 8.3% of men. And women’s less linear careers are reflected in their generally lower pensions and their higher exposure to the risk of poverty.
The Commission intends to assess the areas where there are still gaps in entitlement to family-related leave, and in particular paternity leave and leave for family carers.
It will also pay special attention to the availability of affordable high-quality care facilities, report on the Member States' performance with respect to childcare facilities and, where necessary, make specific recommendations.
Lastly, we need to encourage full use to be made of existing possibilities of financial support.
Over the period from 2007 to 2013, an estimated half a billion euros will be available from the Structural Funds to develop childcare facilities, and another 2.4 billion euros to fund measures to facilitate women’s access to employment and to reconcile work and family life, including access to childcare.
As part of our Europe 2020 strategy, the Commission recently proposed setting up a Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion.
The Platform is to facilitate, inform and encourage further progress, capitalising on the results of 2010 — European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.
The European Year has helped to generate political momentum. I want to preserve its legacy and build on it to strengthen Europe’s social dimension.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Eurobarometer polls repeatedly show there is widespread public concern at poverty, with some 70 per cent looking to the Union to do something about it.
We cannot and should not ignore such messages. That means seeing how we can make the best use of all the instruments, methods and resources available to combat poverty.
As I said earlier, I am in favour of a strong social dimension in the EU’s policies. That principle guides my work, because I believe political action is not just about juggling abstract ideas.
It is about responding to the expectations of our fellow Europeans — the men, women and children who are feeling the rough edge of the crisis, directly or indirectly.
It is about easing the situation of employees who are worried about their working conditions, who live in fear of being made redundant or have already lost their jobs.
It is about facilitating the transition to the labour market for young people whose career prospects seem slimmer by the day.
It is about helping fathers and mothers to balance their family responsibilities and their professional obligations.
It is about giving greater security to the elderly or those approaching retirement, and who are worried about their pensions and their health care.
I know that all members of Coface share my concern and I am confident we can do much to improve things together.