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.