sustainable and inclusive growth. These were the five chosen words to define, in a nutshell,
the much anticipated Europe 2020 strategy. At first, this
outline might immediately direct us towards economic, employment and environmental
policies and strategies - but it is imperative that its scope is wider than
that. If the EU truly seeks to take 20 million people out of poverty by 2020,
then it must unmistakably address health
and social issues and injustice.
The financial crisis and austerity measures have cut deep into the European social tissue, accentuating inequalities between and within the EU member states. Cutbacks and higher taxes led to an increased risk of poverty and social exclusion. Similarly, the access to health services and treatments was compromised given the smaller budget and resources to help those in need - especially among the lower socioeconomic groups and social minorities. EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has referred to the next five years as “a time to heal” [i]. Heal they must, then - if now is the time to grow and to increase competitiveness, the EU should take into account that health is a factor of economic growth, and it should be addressed accordingly.
Tackling health inequalities is, in itself, a way to foster economic growth and cut profit losses. Even before the economic crisis, health losses accounted for 15 to 20% of costs within the EU[ii]. This is, thus, a logical step for the EU to take in the next five years. But its importance goes beyond budgetary targets. With the 65+ population group expected to increase by 45% in 20 years[iii], the EU’s expenditure on healthcare will naturally increase. As such, addressing health issues is not only necessary to tackle age-related diseases and conditions, but also to ensure the wellbeing and quality of life of its citizens, as well as the access and sustainability of the healthcare system itself.
Furthermore, health and social inequities must be a priority for the EU because, in short, a healthier population – and one where different classes have access to the same opportunities - leads to a greater number of people who are capable and willing to work. The economic emphasis given to the Europe 2020 strategy will set in motion measures to foster job creation and competitiveness in several areas - the health sector included. This cannot, however, be a truly successful approach if the EU overlooks the social needs of its citizens. Mechanisms such as the European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion have been designed to tackle inequality issues, but these should be seen as a goal and not just as a means to an end.
The greatest keyword, however, is “inclusive”. A strong human component and actions that call for the active participation of citizens are the strongest ways for the EU to prove that it is moving forward – mightier than the economic measures themselves. Whether it is through technology and methodology transfer between member states, or bigger collective efforts to provide for the needs of affected groups, the emphasis should be made on the idea of solidarity. Sharing knowledge and expertise makes the EU stronger, better prepared to address future problems and, ultimately, a better “leader by example”. As for social inclusion initiatives, one cannot deny the significance of top-down approaches, but it is also paramount for the EU to support and promote bottom-up actions – as the European Economic and Social Committee does every year with its Civil Society Prize, rewarding individuals or initiatives that actively fight against socioeconomic exclusion and poverty. To do so is more than just implementing measures: it shows that social inequities can only be overcome when all levels of society work towards it.
Growth, competitiveness, health and social inclusion always go hand in hand. To push for, and to promote, a greater focus on erasing inequalities is crucial to achieve our goals until 2020. But we should ensure that this spirit and modus operandi endure beyond that date. After all, it is the best tool the EU has to finally erase the feeling and idea of “second-class citizens” – which is, when all is said and done, the worst and most lingering legacy of the European crisis.