How the European Union’s budget and recovery package deal is implemented country by country will determine the future for the continent’s poorest residents.
If deployed appropriately, the “Next Generation” recovery fund, with €312.5 billion in grants and €360 billion in loans available over the next 3 years, could help address socioeconomic inequalities that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and better protect the rights of the bloc’s most marginalized people.
The pandemic has hit the urban and rural poor particularly hard. The impact on deprived neighborhoods in Paris, Barcelona, Naples, Berlin, and beyond is well documented. Europe’s Roma people have been particularly exposed, with an estimated 80 percent in overcrowded housing and 30 percent living with no running water at home pre-pandemic. Seasonal agricultural workers face exploitation in multiple EU countries, including substandard housing and unsanitary working conditions. The European Food Bank Federation has reported a 50 percent increase in demand since the onset of the pandemic.
The outgoing United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty warned in April that people living in or near poverty worldwide are at greatest risk in the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic.
Older people will be at the sharp end of a drastic drop in living standards, if, as predicted, governments cut their pensions.
The European Commission recently took steps to boost resources for the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), which provides emergency food, sanitation, and other material aid. But unless FEAD’s €3.8 billion budget for 2014-2020 is increased significantly in the 2021-2027 budget, the support it can offer will be little more than a drop in the bucket.
In 2010, after the global financial crisis, the European Commission launched a post-crisis strategy with a goal of reducing by 20 million the number of people living in poverty across the bloc by 2020. The last official data from 2017 shows that the EU fell short of that target by about 16 million. Around 113 million people in the EU (1 in 5 of us) still live in serious risk of poverty, after they have received social support.
If the “Next Generation” recovery program seeks to create real resilience, then European governments need to use the funds to build stronger systems to protect their poorest citizens’ social and economic rights before, during, and after crises. The EU and its member states must learn their lesson this time round.