Sergio Aires, President of European Anti-Poverty Network, Brussels: Stop 'yes, we cut' on salaries

in Europost

If for finances and their problems we are a Union, why should this not be the case for poverty

Maria KolevaClose-up: Ser­gio Aires, 44, is pres­i­dent of Euro­pe­an Anti Pov­er­ty Net­work (EAPN). Soci­ol­o­gist by train­ing, he start­ed work for EAPN in 1994. From 1998 to 2006, he was direct­or of EAPN Por­tu­gal. Since 2006, Aires has been Direct­or of the Lis­bon's Obser­va­to­ry on Pov­er­ty and becom­ing, two years lat­er, Pres­i­dent of the Non-Gov­ern­men­tal Forum for Social Inclu­sion, as well. He was also Mem­ber of the EU Inclu­sion Strat­e­gies Group (2011-2012) of EAPN and became its Pres­i­dent for the 2012-2015 term. He is also a research­er and has authored many pub­li­ca­tions. Aires has ini­ti­at­ed and led more than 30 Euro­pe­an pro­jects on var­i­ous top­ics in the field of anti-pov­er­ty work.

- Mr Aires, what is your opin­ion about the EP vote on the new MFF, con­sid­er­ing that the Social Fund is set to receive 1.5% less than what EAPN, togeth­er with 19 NGOs, insist­ed on?

- We are sat­is­fied that funds are avail­a­ble under the ESF for fight­ing against pov­er­ty, but the main prob­lem will be imple­men­ta­tion and that is some­thing that we would always under­line. Because with­out a Euro­pe­an frame­work, a Euro­pe­an strat­e­gy, with­out Euro­pe­an mon­i­tor­ing this means that each Mem­ber State may do what­ev­er they want under this reg­u­la­tion. And this is quite risky because this amount of mon­ey will not be deliv­ered under a strat­e­gy. We have seen bad expe­ri­en­ces and expect clear and much tar­get­ed ori­en­ta­tions and rec­om­men­da­tions to come togeth­er with the mon­ey and that imple­men­ta­tion should be mon­i­tored.

- What will be the role of the net­work in its imple­men­ta­tion?

- We always say that the imple­men­ta­tion should include, very close­ly, those who are expe­ri­enc­ing pov­er­ty and social exclu­sion. It is our demand that the imple­men­ta­tion takes dif­fer­ent kinds of par­tic­i­pa­tion of dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers. In few Mem­ber States, this stake­hold­er par­tic­i­pa­tion is already tak­ing place on struc­tur­al fund pro­gramme draft­ing. But it is not the case for all EU coun­tries and most pro­grammes are not designed involv­ing the civ­il soci­e­ty and par­tic­u­lar­ly the peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing pov­er­ty. So, this is our main con­cern. If the pro­grammes are not designed under this kind of open gov­ern­ance, we are still claim­ing that they should par­tic­i­pate in the imple­men­ta­tion.

- Does EAPN have data on wheth­er the groups fac­ing pov­er­ty have been increas­ing or decreas­ing over the last two years?

- The new­est sta­tis­ti­cal fig­ures are from 2011 and that is the first crit­i­cal point. Why is this still hap­pen­ing? We have the lat­est fig­ures on unem­ploy­ment, but such out-of-date fig­ures on pov­er­ty. Does this have some­thing to do with polit­i­cal com­mit­ment? Of course, these fig­ures are not real. In some coun­tries, pov­er­ty is being "reduced" under the present cir­cum­stan­ces, which is quite iron­ic. But it is a real­i­ty with the sta­tis­ti­cal approach we have. The way we are count­ing the poor with­in a soci­e­ty where all the peo­ple are poor, there will be no pov­er­ty. We know the real­i­ty on the ground is quite dif­fer­ent. Not only is pov­er­ty grow­ing but also it affects new groups and per­sons more inten­sive­ly. At the same time, NGOs that are able to respond to emer­gen­cy sit­u­a­tions are exposed to cuts and reduc­tion of their activ­i­ties.

- Pov­er­ty has var­i­ous types and faces, which is the most prev­a­lent one in the EU?

- It is dif­fi­cult to answer with­out avoid­ing a kind of shop­ping list. One thing is for sure and it is not new - pov­er­ty affects strong­ly chil­dren and wom­en. Elder cit­i­zens are becom­ing now more and more exposed as in some coun­tries they are the only sup­pli­er of the basics for the whole fam­i­ly when all the oth­ers are unem­ployed and all the mon­ey com­ing to the house­hold is mon­ey from pen­sions. This is a par­tic­u­lar risk. It is clear that more peo­ple are com­ing in a sit­u­a­tion of risk of pov­er­ty, for exam­ple peo­ple from the mid­dle class who are los­ing their jobs.

- Do you think that Com­mu­ni­ty pol­i­cies are strong enough to achieve tan­gi­ble pov­er­ty reduc­tion at an EU lev­el?

- Abso­lute­ly not. That is exact­ly what we are claim­ing for EU 2020 strat­e­gy, whose tar­get is to reduce the num­ber of peo­ple in or at risk of pov­er­ty by at least 20 mil­lion. We are far off this tar­get. The num­ber of peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing pov­er­ty has been increas­ing. We need a strong­er com­mit­ment by the EU and by nation­al gov­ern­ments. It is dif­fi­cult to under­stand why, in this sit­u­a­tion, fight­ing pov­er­ty is not an EU pri­or­i­ty. And that is why we insist so much on a com­mon strat­e­gy. If for finan­ces and their prob­lems we are the EU, why this should not be the case for pov­er­ty - which by the way is a con­se­quence of a polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic choice?

- Why is the EAPN dis­ap­point­ed with the new AGS the Com­mis­sion adopt­ed?

- For the very rea­sons I have already stat­ed. If there is some progress in terms of report­ing, with the inclu­sion for instance of the score­board, at the same time very few things are said about pov­er­ty and anti-pov­er­ty com­mit­ments. When the present macro­e­co­nom­ic pol­i­cies are show­ing they can­not reduce pov­er­ty, and on the con­tra­ry, they are inten­si­fy­ing pov­er­ty, we expect­ed to see strong­er rec­om­men­da­tions in the Annu­al Growth Sur­vey to Mem­ber States and also at a Euro­pe­an lev­el.

- Is it pos­si­ble to bridge the vast income gap in Europe?

- If a bet­ter dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth is put in prac­tice, ine­qual­i­ty will cer­tain­ly be reduced. We can take in con­sid­er­a­tion that if the poor are get­ting poor­er, and a new vast num­ber of peo­ple are at risk of pov­er­ty, the rich are get­ting rich­er. So, some­thing is wrong here. Anoth­er thing is to defend social pro­tec­tion because what real­ly shield­ed the EU and par­tic­u­lar­ly some Mem­ber States from a com­plete dis­as­ter was the social pro­tec­tion they had.

- How in your view can the aus­ter­i­ty pol­i­cy be coun­ter­act­ed?

- We should be hon­est about who the real respon­si­bil­i­ty for the cri­sis lies with and have the cour­age to affront them, because those pay­ing the price for the down­turn are not those who are respon­si­ble for it. We should also have the cour­age to reg­u­late the finan­cial mar­kets, start­ing by impos­ing a spe­cif­ic tax on finan­cial trans­ac­tions. We should also find where the mon­ey is gone and take action to avoid this and def­i­nite­ly close fis­cal havens.

We should stop the "yes, we cut" on sal­a­ries, on pen­sions, on pub­lic serv­i­ces and real­ise that social pro­tec­tion is in fact an invest­ment and with­out social pro­tec­tion there will be no growth. With­out social pro­tec­tion, we will face slav­ery and mis­ery. Indeed, we should stop per­mit­ting and facil­i­tat­ing the priv­a­ti­sa­tion of pub­lic serv­i­ces and goods, some of them essen­tial for human life, such as water and ener­gy. The EU should make every effort to allow a bet­ter and more equal dis­tri­bu­tion of income and wealth by put­ting effect­ive fis­cal jus­tice in place. One of the best invest­ments it can make is to sup­port social econ­o­my organ­i­sa­tions and take an affirm­a­tive deci­sion about the use of the ESF for a deep­er and stra­te­gic approach to the fight against pov­er­ty. This will be the best sign of a real polit­i­cal com­mit­ment.

- You and Com­mis­sion­er Las­zlo Andor agreed on con­duct­ing EU-lev­el meet­ings of peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing pov­er­ty. What is their role?

- We count very much on his sup­port because these meet­ings are the tip of the ice­berg of a large proc­ess of grass-root par­tic­i­pa­tion all over the EU. This proc­ess start­ed 12 years ago. Now, when it is start­ing to deliv­er clear results and the voice of the poor starts being heard, some­one thinks it is time to stop it. This is the most basic and nec­es­sa­ry form of democ­ra­cy. Peo­ple have the right to par­tic­i­pate in their own devel­op­ment. And that is a key step to start new ways of gov­ern­ance, more trans­par­ent and clos­er to real­i­ties.

- What do you think is the most impor­tant to increase effect­ive­ness of actions to erad­i­cate pov­er­ty?

- We think that to increase effect­ive­ness we must be able to reduce ine­qual­i­ties - and this can be done. Why do we still, aft­er the cri­sis, con­tin­ue to use the same mod­el, the mod­el that brought us to here? This makes no sense. It is impov­er­ish­ing Mem­ber States, impov­er­ish­ing cit­i­zens and impov­er­ish­ing econ­o­my. We are hear­ing ideas that we should nav­i­gate out of the cri­sis through sup­port­ing econ­o­my, but the cri­sis is kill­ing the econ­o­my too. What all these actions of aus­ter­i­ty in many Mem­ber States are doing is kill­ing the econ­o­my. Anoth­er thing that could help is to improve cit­i­zens' par­tic­i­pa­tion in the over­all gov­ern­ance at the EU and nation­al lev­els. We are fac­ing a seri­ous risk of break­ing very bad­ly the social cohe­sion in the Union. Euro­pe­an cit­i­zens tend to believe that all their prob­lems come from the EU. They do not believe in the EU any more, and this is very pre­car­i­ous. They do not believe in pol­i­ti­cians any more, and this is even more pre­car­i­ous because it is exact­ly the sce­nar­io that can bring us to a very crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion.

- In this con­nec­tion, what are your mes­sa­ges con­cern­ing the forth­com­ing Euro­pe­an elec­tions?

- We are going to have a very strong focus on the Euro­pe­an elec­tions. As I have men­tioned, we are wor­ried that their results can bring us to an even worse sit­u­a­tion and there is a risk that the rise of euro­scep­ti­cism can bring non-social pol­i­ti­cians to pow­er. It is a very cru­cial moment as this time, the Par­lia­ment will elect the Pres­i­dent of the Com­mis­sion. The elec­tions are some­how "yes or no" for solv­ing these prob­lems. We pro­posed spe­cif­ic steps towards Social Europe and towards a social dimen­sion of the EMU. The Com­mis­sion has pre­sent­ed some impor­tant steps designed to coun­ter­act the impact of the cri­sis and the effect of aus­ter­i­ty, but we are very wor­ried that this will not ful­ly take into con­sid­er­a­tion the prob­lem of pov­er­ty. The Union should launch an inte­grat­ed strat­e­gy to fight pov­er­ty and social exclu­sion. Social invest­ments should not replace the social pro­tec­tion mod­el.

- What were the main top­ics of your talks with Ice­land's Pres­i­dent at your recent meet­ing?

- Actu­al­ly, he invit­ed us dur­ing our EAPN Exec­u­tive meet­ing in Ice­land and it was very nice to meet such a spe­cial and char­is­mat­ic per­son. Explain­ing why Ice­land is emerg­ing from the cri­sis ear­li­er and fast­er than any oth­er EU coun­try, he ques­tioned EU pol­i­ti­cians: "Why don't you ask what Ice­land has done? Peo­ple who are still suf­fer­ing by the cri­sis and liv­ing in pov­er­ty deserve to hear the answers to this ques­tion." In Ice­land they have asked them­selves "What is more impor­tant - the wel­fare and well-being of our peo­ple or the finan­cial mar­ket?" And they decid­ed to go for the peo­ple of Ice­land, on the con­tra­ry to every oth­er EU coun­try that made the choice to bail out the banks.