Between 2009-2015, the number of Europeans living without enough money to heat their homes or cope with unforeseen expenses, known as ''severe material deprivation'', rose by 7,5 million to 50 million people. These are among the 123 million people, almost q quarter of the EU's population, at risk of living in poverty, while the continent is home to 342 billionaires.
Almost ten years after of the financial crisis 2007-2008 in Europe, inequality has increased dramatically. Conservative governments across Europe continue to turn a blind eye to the growing divisions in society, despite the shocking realities. In Greece, infant mortality is up 43% because of dramatic cuts to healthcare services. In Spain, over 400,000 families have been evicted from their homes. Youth unemployment affects a quarter of young Europeans on average and in some countries, like Greece and Spain, half of young people are unable to find work.
The gender pay gap stand at a depressing 16.4%, with further deteriorations in women’s pay in several countries in recent years. Spending on education has effectively dropped in over 20 countries of the European Union. Without adequate education and training and with few decent jobs available, opportunities are sadly limited on the world’s richest continent. Employment is becoming increasingly unstable; short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages have undermined the job security of many Europeans.
Inequality is the number one challenge of the 21st century. To get out of the crisis, the kind of unbalanced, feeble recovery some countries have shown is not enough. Genuine change will require the creation of jobs with decent salaries, the wider availability of education and training and much greater upward social mobility. To this end, investment in growth and job creation is essential.
Public investment in sustainable jobs, to revitalise growth, industry and domestic demand, is key to bridging the widening gap. It is the combination of equal access to equal public services – notably healthcare and education – and decent jobs with opportunities for upward social mobility that can effectively reduce inequalities.
Europe must lead the fight for equality. Suffocating austerity measures hitting the poorest and unfair and regressive tax systems allowing multinational corporations to evade billions of euros in taxes, heaping the tax burden on individuals citizens have exacerbated inequalities. A long-term investment strategy for sustainable, high-tech and research-based jobs, as well as modern industry and manufacturing, will reduce inequalities and return Europe to its global leadership role.
Europe’s social model of welfare will no longer be sustainable if a majority of citizens can barely scrape by and have no security or opportunity instead of contributing to the welfare pots. Millions of new jobs – stable jobs with decent pay – are needed, to give people hope and opportunities, especially for Europe’s young people.
Yet the issue of inequalities cannot be reduced to socio-economic barriers, they occur elsewhere in society, too. The fundamental principles of the European project are based on the premise of opportunity. Free movement, a single market and guarantees for the rule of law and non-discrimination are pillars of an equal society.
Yet these pillars can no longer be taken for granted. Free movement is constantly attacked with xenophobia and accusations of ‘benefit tourism’ against those who seek to build lives elsewhere outside their own country. In reality, only 2.7% of Europeans live in an EU country where they are not citizens and the overwhelming majority of these contribute more and take less from the social security systems of their new home countries than its citizens do. Equality as a form of non-discrimination is under attack, with minorities, especially the Roma community and LGBTI people, regularly facing blatant discrimination. Race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation still matter when they should not.
It is the European Union’s duty to address these inequalities wherever they occur and to lay the ground for national legislators to implement policies that foster equality and social justice. If the recovery is focused on guaranteeing social justice, investment in growth and job creation can help reduce socio-economic inequalities. But beyond that, the European Union must rekindle the public’s sense that fairness is a value worth defending in our society.
Equality must be at the heart of every European policy – be it completing the banking union, protecting small savers, investment policy, creating decent jobs, protecting the environment and consumers, or ensuring the safety of European citizens.
The Socialists and Democrats are aware of the difference. Fighting for fairness means fighting for all Europeans. After the years of crippling conservative austerity which has divided Europeans and deepened the inequalities in our society, it is time to bring equality and opportunity back to the centre of EU policy making.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert