Should Poverty be victorious in Europe?

The European commission president Jose Manuel Barroso told a gathering of civil society representatives on Monday (28 September) that the European Union needed to do more to tackle social issues such as poverty.  On the other hand, while calling for greater European action to deal with the regions’ poor, Mr Barroso ruled out any move on taxation. “It is impossible to harmonise this. We are not a federal state,” he said.  However, one would think that it goes undisputed that the European welfare state touches almost every aspect of its economy and society. So far, in the mainstreams’ perception, Europe managed to avoid the shamefully unjust American system. After all, the welfare state basically exists to provide insurance for citizens buffeted by the changing economy. As such, if the small size of European economies and their openness to external bigger shocks made them more volatile, we would expect a larger welfare state to cushion the poor, from these shocks. Alas! the evidence does not support this view. At present, 79 million people in the EU live in poverty, despite the fact that they inhabit the richest economic area in the world.

The question of who receives most from the EU budget has continually caused strong debate between net donors and net recipients, and upcoming discussions on funding for the EU’s next financial period 2014-2020 are unlikely to pass off smoothly. Germany and other higher tax member states complain however that low-tax countries, such as Ireland undermine their ability to support expensive social welfare programmes.

Let us not undermine the fact that redistribution of income by means of taxes, transfers, and other means is a policy measure, and therefore is a result of the politico-economic process. The role of institutions in economic redistribution, is flexible and ultimate reflect the deeper forces. Before Brussels’ army think of moving towards an American welfare system, some factors must be seen in contrast to Europe: The United States is a country of immigrants. It stands to reason that those who left their countries of origin in search of fortune to escape poverty were the most risk-taking of the lot. American history also confirms the role that racial divisions played in limiting the welfare state. It also makes us aware that the introduction of minorities, such as the new immigration into Europe, might create a potential for entrepreneurial politicians to create hatred in order to gain support. It might be a foolish step not to see the difference between European and U.S politics without recognizing the strong differences in beliefs between the two areas.  Different perceptions about the poor can also lead to a different tolerance of inequality.  Europeans may be more offended by inequality because they perceive it as intrinsically unfair. Americans on the other hand, may be more tolerant because they see inequality as a fair result of individual effort.  One cannot deny the fact that some right-wing politicians have worked hard to instill the idea of the poor as morally incompetent and irresponsible layabouts. As such, American beliefs about the poor should be seen as the result, not the cause, of successful American anti-redistribution politics. Educational institutions played its role too.  The right-wing ideology continues to dominate schools through a system of local funding.  Public-schools have been a local affair, where ‘prominent’ citizens have been able to ensure that the curriculum does not directly attack their interests or counter their views.

In the 1960s the United States government mounted a well-publicised War on Poverty. However no such programmes or measures have ever commanded enough resources, facilities and public support to have a widespread impact.  But, since 1981 there has not been even any War on Poverty-it is as if victory had been declared, when in fact there was no such conquest.

Indeed, as President Reagan is said to have remarked, ‘We declared war on poverty, and poverty won’.

It remains to be seen which direction the majority of the Brussels-based army of people in the EU, seeking to gain greater prominence for their own agendas is moving to, as they are keenly aware that the next few months represent an important policy-shaping window regarding the EU’s direction for the next few years. Would this army be mobilized to defend against poverty in Europe? Would they nullify the belief that it is not only moral weakness and laziness? Would they be able to see clearly why there is a sense of hopelessness in the lives of the poor and why some are so privileged? Or would they also choose to declare the ‘victory of poverty’? At best, one can hope that there will be consensus for some sympathy for the downtrodden when the Member States will be approving a new work programme for the commission at a spring summit next year. The commission is also set to launch a consultation period for a future European economic strategy that will take over from the much-maligned Lisbon Agenda that expires in 2010.

The European Greens are very much concerned about poverty in the European Union. Indeed, the Greens are deeply concerned about the present EU’s lack of democratic transparency, its bureaucracy and the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies which are causing more inequality. This is resulting in a strong skepticism towards the EU.  The way the globalization process is organized, has led to a fear among citizens that social ‘certainties’ are evaporating. European Greens are for a European social model and believe that the most sustainable choice in this regard is one that ties social justice with ecological justice. Here,  EU member states should  opt for measures that increase social protection and confront discrimination, whilst reducing their ecological footprint as a precondition for a just and sustainable development of other parts of the world as well.

The Greens’ vision of a Green New Deal opts for such policies, where socio-economic inequality can be tackled through policies which create green jobs and social justice in the process.

Nighat Urpani

Spokesperson for Social Protection

Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party spokesperson for Social Protection