EU Parliament wants to end “free trade” rhetoric to tackle poverty

EPA/SIMELA PANTZARTZI

People eat free meals during a New Year's Day meal for the homeless and poor that was provided by the city of Athens, in Athens, Greece, January 1, 2017.

EU Parliament wants to end “free trade” rhetoric to tackle poverty


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Almost one person in four experiences poverty or social exclusion, and one young person in three; more than 118.7 million Europeans, are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, including 26.9 percent of children and 17.4 percent elderly people.

Globalisation, technological changes, digitalisation and the economic crisis have increased inequalities in the EU. Over the years, the Parliament has repeatedly called for adequate social protection, particularly for vulnerable groups that include disabled people, low-income families, young people. and single parents.

In a resolution adopted in November 2017, MEPs stressed that reducing inequalities was a precondition for economic recovery, decent job creation, social cohesion, and prosperity in the EU.

The situation has become so unbearable, that the European Parliament organised today a special debate on finding ways to tackle poverty across the EU. The initiator of today’s debate, Udo Bullmann, acting leader of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), said:

“Inequality has reached new shocking levels and is threatening to tear our societies apart, not only globally but also in Europe. In the EU, 120 million people are poor. 28 million children live in households that cannot provide for their basic needs: food, healthcare, education or housing. It is shameful that the richest continent of the world does not take care of its own children rightfully.

“Even though the European economy is on the mend again and unemployment is going down, income and wealth inequality are on the rise. An alerting 40% of wealth is in the hands of only 1% of the richest Europeans.  Clearly, the neoliberal myth of trickle-down economics is not going to sort out the situation, nor are today’s insufficient policy efforts. The election of Trump and the Brexit, which have also stemmed from a growing disaffection with the status quo, must be the wake-up call for the last sleepwalkers. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is undermining the social and democratic fabric of our societies. It is high time to act now.”

Marianne Thyssen, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labor Mobility warned, on behalf of the Commission, that the “discontent of the people who feel they have been left behind fuels the rise of nationalism, protectionism .and populism”.

Eurosceptic MEPs, especially from UK and Poland, insisted that the effects of Middle East migration has been the driving force behind people’s discontent. They actually asked for more deregulation and less rules, while also speaking against the uniformisation of social security and of pension schemes.

Agnes Jongerius, S&D MEP and spokesperson on employment, answered:

“It’s a scandal that working class families are falling behind while big corporations are dodging taxes and driving down wages. Our economy must again work for the benefit of all and ensure that no one is left behind.”

Many MEPS asked the EU to end the rhetoric of “free trade”, while the Estonian ALDE MEP Yana Toom spoke also about the poverty induced by geopolitical factors, such as the situation in some regions of Estonia close to the Russian border and inhabited by Russian speakers.

Some facts and figures on poverty and inequality in Europe:

• Income inequality remains at an all-time high, the Gini coefficient on income distribution increased on average from 0.28 in the 1980s to 0.38 in 2016.
• The average income of the poorest 10 percent is 9½ times lower than that of the richest 10 percent.
• The 40 percent of least wealthy households own a little over 3 percent of the total wealth, while the 10 percent of the wealthiest households holds 50 percent. The extreme concentration of wealth is even more significant to consider, with nearly 40 percent of total wealth in the hands of the 1 percent richest Europeans.
• The post-crisis job gaps are closing on average in Europe, but there are still 1.4 million fewer jobs in the EU in 2015 compared with 2007. In addition, the data does not describe the quality or working conditions of these jobs.
• Gender gaps in employment and earnings have declined in most countries in the EU, but at 9.8 percent and 12.8 percent respectively they persist – and women are still disadvantaged in terms of the type of jobs and occupation they hold.
• There are close links between socio-economic backgrounds and education and health outcomes. Men with lower levels of education have 2.7 years less life expectancy than the better educated, and women, 1.2 years.
• There is a gap in education outcomes among individuals with different parental socio-economic backgrounds. A child from an advantaged socio-economic background will score on average 20 percent higher in mathematics than a child from a disadvantaged background.
• Low-skilled youth who are disconnected from both employment and learning represent 17 percent of 15-29 year-olds in the EU, and risk being permanently left behind in the labour market.
• Over the last 20 years, the gap in productivity level between the frontier regions of Europe and the bottom 10 percent increased by 56 percent.
• Major inequalities remain across countries in terms of overall employment, with unemployment rates reaching 20.7 percent in Greece versus 3.7 percent in Germany.

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