EWL News

NGOs and MEPs call for more legitimacy in the implementation of the EU economic strategy

(Brussels, 14 May 2013) The EWL co-organised a very successful public Hearing on ‘Strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the European Semester - Civil Society proposals for smart, sustainable and inclusive recovery’ on 14 May 2013 in the European Parliament.

For the second time since 2010, the European Women’s Lobby has been involved with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) engaging with the European Semester. In a move for political transparency and impact in the lives of Europeans, an ad-hoc coalition co-organized by Mary Collins (EWL) and Sian Jones (EAPN) presented a joint publication on Alternative Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) in the European Parliament on May 14th 2013 to a full auditorium. The cross political party hearing was co-hosted by Marije Cornelissen, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance; Veronica Lope Fontagné, European People’s Party; Marian Harkin, ALDE and Sergio Gutiérrez Prieto, S&D.

“Commissioners beware! There are a growing number of citizens watching!“ warned MEP Cornelissen. The event opened with an emphasis on the democratic deficit in formulating and implementing CSRs for Member States as the European Semester rolls on with no sanctions, little information, and no meaningful citizen input. National governments and CSO members are largely unaware of the European semester process and where CSRs come from or how their input is relevant. Inaccessible language coupled with tight timelines and lack of genuine consultation reflects a reverberating sense of insincerity and ‘window dressing’ on behalf of the Commission, whose communication leaves much to be desired.

The coalition’s critical recommendations engaged social, environmental, labour and gendered lenses, focusing on the legitimacy of the European Semester process. As for the Social CSO’s, Peter Verhaege of Caritas Europa along with Jana Hainsworth from Eurochild pointed to the missing accountability structure to address anti-poverty targets and the impact of austerity measures on the most vulnerable; youth, elderly, migrants, differently abled, children and ethnic minorities- a majority of whom are increasingly women.

Echoing the rest of the coalition, Constanze Adolf of Green Budget Europe called for more transparency in the process and unanimity on aspects of taxation. Consequences of heavily subsidized energy go beyond fiscal costs and negatively impact growth, she warned. Legitimate concerns over how to resolve this disproportionate taxation persist as increased energy taxes can disproportionately affect the poor. Alternative recommendations included calls for a 10 percent shift from labor tax to resource tax, keeping social impacts in mind.

If citizens voices were absent from the democratic process, the voices of women were altogether ignored. Mary Collins from the EWL (representing over 2000 women’s organizations) gave an impassioned speech and warned of a backwards trend in gender equality across Europe as more women are forced out of the labour market, becoming ‘second earners’ and pushed into traditional, unpaid care-taker roles. While austerity exacerbates the current situation with cuts to services and attacks benefits disproportionately affecting women, gender inequality persists as care continues to be framed as a women’s issue, rather than a collective societal responsibility. Cross cutting into the issue of poverty and old age, she provided a haunting assessment: “the gender pension gap mirrors the accumulation of all the gender inequalities that women face across their life-cycle”; the current 16 percent pay gap paves the way for the resulting pension pay gap of 39 percent in Europe. In Germany, for example, women receive pensions 60 percent lower than that of men’s- a fast track to poverty and a desperate cry for individualized taxation and social security – a vital step to becoming independent citizens and humans. She echoed the coalition’s call for benchmarks and targets, impact assessments, gender mainstreaming and solidarity across the EU on issues affecting not only half the population but society as a whole.

Elephant in the room

Co-chair Marian Harkin, MEP ALDE used the term, ‘elephant in the room’ as observations from the floor poured in, pointing to the paradox of budgetary incompatibility with social objectives. The recommendations need to change in order to resolve these contradictions and reflect the reality of millions of Europeans- the resounding message of the first panel.

The much needed two way conversation between economic and social sectors appeared unlikely as no representatives from the Economic and Financial Affairs department were present. MEP Veronica Lope Fontagné invoked the need for better economic policy, as the balance between social and economic importance is heavily tipped in favour of the latter. The unequal footing between the Social Protection Committee and Economic and Financial Affairs was mentioned by Sian Jones of the EAPN, and further underscored by those present at the hearing (or not).

In his reaction, Tom Dominique, Chair of the Social Protection Committee (Council of the European Union) offered agreement on the need for social standards across Europe, stating that financial stability problems led to problems in long term care.

Dr. Lieve Fransen, Director of "Europe 2020: Social Policies", DG welcomed the exercise praising the effort of the coalition and MEP’s in organizing the event. Though timely and relevant, disparaging views over implementation lingered as she insisted that in spite of alternative CSRS, more needed to be done to assess National Reform Programs and warned against equating the social dimension of the European Monetary Union with the social dimension of the European Union.

Lively exchange with the floor

Cécile Greboval, Secretary General of the EWL insisted that “the economy should serve the interest of the people and not the other way around, otherwise we are on a fast track to poverty and inequality.”

At a time when the impact of austerity on the social sector “comes later, lasts longer and cuts deeper,“(EASPD Luk Zelderloo) Europe cannot afford to blindly follow economic policies that have underestimated their effects on the majority of the population.

A two-way conversation is vital, as is the re-enforced determination and agenda of CSO’s that was strengthened during the public hearing. MEP Cornelissen suggested ‘shadow reporting’ be set up on a Member State level and invited a written report on the process.

The resounding message from the Coalition and MEPs was a clear call for embedding the democratic process in the European Semester; involve national parliaments, set up meaningful consultation and evaluation processes and benchmarks and address the problems facing society as a whole (ie; through gender mainstreaming).

Member States are currently submitting their national reform programmes and their stability or convergence programmes and the Commission receives and then assesses them. The national documents were uploaded here as they arrived. The results of the Commission assessment will be presented very soon, on the 29 May together with proposals for country specific recommendations, CSRs to be endorsed by the European Council.

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