UN report on poverty and human rights in the EU

Olivier De Schutter UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (photo Brolywood Studio)

(7 July 2021) “Member States are asked to be competitive and lean: they are pardoned for not being social enough.” This spot-on observation on what needs fixing in Europe is made in the report from the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, following his visit to the European Union.  The report was published on 30 June and can be found here and a presentation from the Rapporteur  here.

During his visit to the EU, the Special Rapporteur met representatives from more than 50 institutions and organizations, including people affected by poverty, trade unions, civil society, city representatives, and officials from EU institutions and Member State governments, to assess the contribution of the EU to poverty eradication in the region. 

EPSU had two meetings with the Special Rapporteur, one at the beginning of his visit – see here for meeting report and the EPSU background note submitted setting out our concerns  – and a second time during our recent event to mark the UN Public Services Day, on 23 June.  On both occasions the Special Rapporteur was attentive to our concerns about quality public services.

As the report points out, too many people in the EU – one in five or 91.4 million – remain at risk of poverty or social exclusion and that inequality levels have remained static or even worsened since 2008.  The Special Rapporteur notes that stronger  redistributive policies are needed to address this.  However, investments in areas critical for poverty reduction, namely in social protection, health and education are actually below pre-2008 levels.  Furthermore, the EU has not only put pressure on national budgetary choices, but also for example in energy policy the EU restricts the use of social or regulated tariffs that have been shown to be effective in reducing energy poverty. 

The Special Rapporteur argues that these developments are at odds with commitments taken under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights that call for the progressive realisation of human rights and for no retrogressive steps to be taken.  The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations call on the EU to prioritise  better social outcomes, as not properly addressing poverty and inequality will be increasingly unworkable as well as unacceptable. 

Among the recommendations the report proposes ‘socialising’ economic policy,  strengthening public services and integrating human rights principles into day-to-day work.  The NextGenerationEU and the Recovery and Resilience Facility  (RRF) should for example be directed  towards strengthening public services and social investment, particularly for early childhood education and care.   The EU should steer Member States to make improvements in minimum incomes and minimum wages, to tackle homelessness, and to introduce greater progressivity in taxation.  The Commission’s ‘Social Scoreboard’ of indicators should be revised to include indicators on trade unionisation rates and collective bargaining coverage, and give more weight to monitoring social dumping in general.  Regarding taxation the report is clear that tax dumping must be tackled:  “The (Treaty) requirement of unanimity in the area of taxation does not protect national sovereignty.  It does rather the opposite: it impedes their ability to act collectively and thus more effectively.” 

Trade unions agree that prioritising better social outcomes over short-term economic performance requires a change in direction. Within the framework of the Future of Europe Conference discussions have started on defining the changes to the EU’s policies, rules and Treaties that can support this.