This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Belgium – BRUSSELS – 2017 will mark a turning point for Europe and social inclusion is the best way forward. In my view, social inclusion is about me respecting you, you respecting me, valuing our contribution to society, empowering one another and ensuring we both live in dignity.

Growing disillusion must be tackled at the source: social exclusion

With elections in many European Union (EU) countries -including France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and most probably Italy-, 2017 offers plenty of opportunities for people and politicians to voice ideas and concerns. Extreme parties are attractive to many and it is easy to understand why. The quality of life of too many people has stalled (at best), with disillusion growing. Brexit and the US elections are clear signs of this. The exasperation has been successfully picked up by the extremes, who rightfully criticise the malfunctioning system yet offer simplistic and dangerous solutions.

Today, the simple understanding that all people should have their basic human rights guaranteed is understood by many as the establishment imposing their views on people. Political correctness is now attached to a system which has failed to support too many people. We must learn from this: human rights and respect for the other can only be achieved if they are applied to all people on an equal basis. Given the increasing complexity of our world today and the problems we encounter, there is no easy solution. But there are priorities. I believe the priority should be empowering people, providing real opportunities for all and creating hope for a better future.

An economic mind-set focused on social inclusion is required

Social welfare systems play an essential role here, yet they are too often undermined on a constant basis; if not in words, at least in investment. The fact that this has also gone alongside a rise in precarious employment, replacing what were once secure jobs, also plays an important role in this regard.

There should be no surprise that this molotov cocktail of economic and employment policies has led to distrust in the system, especially by those who have not benefitted from it.

Just look at the situation of persons with disabilities. Up to 70% of disabled people of working age are either out of work or economically inactive. There is significant proof that this can change –in part- through the development of quality person-centred services, inclusive education systems and effective employment support. Most cost-benefits studies demonstrate that there is also an economic return for taxpayers to develop such inclusive models. There is also clear evidence that EU Member States with higher numbers of workers in health and social care have higher overall life satisfaction rates. Countries with strong health and care services have –on average- responded better to the economic crisis. 

Yet, for decades, the political trend has been to weaken public interest in social cohesion and inclusion, resulting in real cuts to public expenditure in social care and support services; sometimes dramatically.

This has clearly had a counter-productive effect on the inclusion of millions of people in Europe; placing additional strain on their ability to access quality care and support services.

This has an often underestimated impact on their quality of life and opportunities to access quality education and jobs, leading to a loss of trust in the system and on their hope for a better future.

Social inclusion is not an ideological issue

When significant evidence points to quality of life and social inclusion being linked to a strong health and care services sector, it is not ideological to question the economic and fiscal trends of the past decade. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have also reached the conclusion that the austerity-led economic policies of the past decades have failed to effectively tackle inequalities, despite higher levels of equality being essential for economic growth.

The priority should be about what works for inclusive societies and what does not. It is about ensuring that all people have the sense that society is both working towards their empowerment and providing a safety net in case something goes wrong. It is about all people having a level of control over their opportunities in life.

Learning from mistakes: time to invest in people

We have to be bold, we have to learn from our mistakes, we have to invest in social inclusion and we have to give people hope that the system is working … for them. This requires a change in mind-set for many leaders, putting inclusion at the highest point of our political agenda.  The EU might be on the right track with the European Pillar of Social Rights. It is a great opportunity to develop an action plan for investment in social rights. Such a plan has to link the Pillar to more flexibility for social investment, a strong cohesion policy and a Juncker Investment Plan geared for social infrastructure. Whereas civil society organisations are reasonably strong at European level, this should be strengthened on the political front by structurally involving civil society on an equal basis to social partners in the development of EU policies. This would help to better inform the EU of the concerns and ideas of those fighting for social fairness and vice versa.

Business as usual risks putting Europe on a dangerous path, possibly even leading to armed conflict over the next few generations. We all have a responsibility to stop this from happening. I believe a strong, united Europe, prioritising social inclusion, is the best way forward to ensure a secure and prosperous future for all.