Feb 7, 2011

The Learning Union: EU Social Inclusion Policy

Has eastern enlargement exposed the EU to new problems and simultaneously made it impossible to reach agreement on dealing with them? Some old member states certainly believe so, suggests Irena Cerovic. But in so doing they ignore a considerable new asset of the Union: the capacity of new and future member states to bring new policy solutions to old problems.

Addressing social exclusion always requires a dual approach: facilitating the economic participation of vulnerable groups on one side, and ensuring fundamental human rights standards on the other. Yet the fine line at which human rights end and economic rights begin is, naturally, a core political dividing line and as such endlessly fluid. The European Union’s forays into social policy have focused heavily upon those aspects of social inclusion on which all member states can agree – increasing equality between men and women in the labour market, empowering persons with disability, or alleviating deprivation due to living circumstances such as family failure. EU social inclusion policy broadens the traditional definition of income-based poverty in a way that allows for some kind of consensus over social policy matters among the member states.

It is widely assumed that the EU’s eastern enlargement makes the achievement of social objectives even more difficult. Enlargement not only increases the range of problems represented in decision-making, but also the number of voices discussing them. Furthermore, the existence of impoverished and socially excluded ethnic minorities in the new member states has exposed the EU to new and divisive problems of social diversity. Yet, what the “old” member states often forget is that their colleagues in new members and in states that have not yet acceded may also be capable of bringing solutions to the table. If the Union wants to bring meaning to its weak social policies, its willingness to learn from them will be very valuable. Learning from these states, however, requires the “old” members to admit that they face similar problems of their own.

Unity in a New Kind of Diversity

As with all “soft” EU policies, the joint objectives, targets, and measures agreed within the scope of EU social inclusion policy remain lowest common denominator. The vast diversity of historical legacies among the different member states when it comes to citizenship rights, welfare provision and all those subtle balances between collective and individual rights, mean that discussions over anything perceived as belonging to the contingent of social policy will always be contentious.

In order to increase the chances of consensus, social inclusion has therefore been tightly linked to the Union’s economic objectives. Greater participation of the deprived, vulnerable, or the marginalised in the labour market both contributes to growth and reduces social spending. Yet, social inclusion is inextricable from such fundamental principles as human rights, equality of opportunity, and non-discrimination – all of which are core EU values. By emphasizing these two ideological supports, the Union has been able to develop the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) in the hope of identifying successful solutions to enhance the participation of certain groups – women, persons with disability, the young – without impinging on member states’ sovereignty in policy areas in which these solutions are implemented: education, healthcare, or welfare provision.

Until relatively recently, however, the EU has not seen the need to elaborate in depth inclusion-mechanisms for groups living in poverty due to their specific ethnic or national makeup. Few EU citizens – the Traveller Community in Ireland and the UK are a notable exception – could be thought of as discriminated against or excluded on grounds of ethnicity. Traditional minorities, remnants from the collapse of pre-World War I empires, have native motherlands within the EU and often live in some of the most affluent regions of the Union – such as Austrians in northern Italy. Even with the unprecedented influx of migrant workers from across the globe over the last several decades, immigration rules ensured that citizenship rights have been very difficult to attain, thus putting little pressure on member states or the EU to come up with well-designed policies for dealing with an extended set of economic or social rights of the new minorities.

This situation is rapidly changing: not only are there growing numbers of young, second-generation Turkish, Kurdish, or Indian immigrants with EU citizenship populating European schools, but the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 have confronted the Union with a phenomenon hitherto confined to former Eastern Europe: that of large ethnic minorities – most notably, the Roma – living in poverty in what are already the least well-off corners of the EU. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the European Commission, which has over the last two years initiated a number of policy discussions, reports, and recommendations targeted specifically at the Roma population. Yet, although still limited, the data provided by member states on the exclusion of this group from major social systems indicate extensive discrimination across the EU.

Inclusion in a Time of Crisis

In the time it took for European leaders to come to terms with enlargement fatigue, institutional reform, and the relief that the wave of cheap east European labour proved less earth-shattering to the “old” member states than some feared, the world had been hit by the global economic crisis.  The contrast with the preceding 15 years was clear. These had been characterized by the momentum of the end of Communism and by economic prosperity. Back then, human rights promotion had been elevated to an ideology and in some instances even rose to become a cornerstone of European and foreign policy, with leaders across the EU deliberating sanctions when the far-right Jörg Haider entered Government in Austria in 2000. The dual rationale supporting the EU’s efforts against social exclusion had been robust, even if the bloc had not made ambitious use of them.

The rise of anti-Islamism since the terrorist attacks of September 11, coupled with economic hardship and massive job losses, don’t provide fertile ground for overhauling social inclusion in a way that would more effectively take account of the EU’s new marginalized ethnic communities. Politically, it will be increasingly difficult for member states to address these issues. And without significant political support and much clearer links between other existing mechanisms, the current OMC framework will not allow for stronger EU action in the field. Implementation of EU social initiatives will be entirely in the domain of member states, with the EU still hesitant to define new competences for itself in this politically delicate area.

The political juncture is, of course, not wholly adverse. The economic crisis has, for example, reinforced the more utilitarian backbone of social inclusion. As reflected in the Europe 2020 strategy, EU leaders seem to be clear about the need to dramatically improve the participation of vulnerable groups in economic life, including ethnic minorities: given Europe’s demographic trends, it would be difficult to fathom how the EU’s economic goals, particularly in employment, would be achievable if large chunks of the population remain on the fringes of society, contributing little while draining social budgets. Yet, this strengthening of the economic rationale is a mixed blessing and may come at the cost of the EU’s pursuit of inclusion as a human right.

It is unsurprising then, that in the area of social inclusion, Europe 2020 has yet to produce any truly innovative solutions – indeed, at this point, it seems to be offering more of the same or similar. While a new emphasis on the Roma is clear, no institutional arrangements that would strengthen or supplement the existing OMC mechanism are apparent. What few additional EU powers there are refer primarily to combating racism and xenophobia in the domain of racially motivated violence and inciting ethnically-based hate; however, concerning the key points of access to education, housing, healthcare, and employment, the procedures for monitoring member state practices are insufficient to ensure that declared principles become reality.

Stepping up in Education

Among the areas key to achieving the inclusion of the EU’s new minorities, early access to equal education is the absolute priority. The 2008 decision of the European Court of Human Rights on racially segregated schools in the Czech Republic is just one example of the seriousness of the problem – even for a “new” member state, it took a (non-EU) judicial ruling to order an end to the practice of “special” education of the Roma in schools for children with developmental disability.

Happily, thanks to the diversity of practices among member states, to the overwhelming advances in educational statistics as well as to the existence of large-scale comparative studies, there is scope for peer learning and exchange of information on successful implementation mechanisms.

But it is not only political pressures to reduce spending which cloud this potential. The current OMC provides a messy playing field. On the EU-level, numerous projects continue to generate very specific recommendations for reforming education systems. They only occasionally find their place in joint policy targets. At the same time, the vast number of actors involved, the decentralization of education in many member states, and the still nascent collection of segregated data on education achievement, all contribute to the difficult translation of principle into practice.

Although the EU cannot (and should not) impose specific education policy designs, the OMC does need to be significantly intensified in this area. The identification of best practice should remain on the agenda, but the OMC needs to go beyond this. The rationale is not only economic: insisting on the link between inclusive education and economic competitiveness is certainly a selling point, but the process of adapting to a very new reality is painstaking and requires an honest confrontation with the failures of one’s own system in aspects that have long been considered “resolved” in Europe. This can only be achieved if the human rights perspective is also taken into account.

With the current economic and political backdrop, this will take something much firmer than the voluntary commitment to peer learning. It is time actually to bring to life the array of documents stressing the commitment of member states to equality and non-discrimination and to begin monitoring their implementation in education systems.

Learning from the Backyard

Fortunately, the EU is quite familiar with the mechanics of scrutiny and conditionality required to achieve real results in this field – only, it will never be able to fully implement them internally. The enlargement process holds some very valuable lessons, some of which the Union could find a way to disseminate to all its current members.

The eastern enlargements brought not only new minorities, but also the membership of countries with significantly more experience of this form of social inclusion. The vast majority of states that joined the Union in 2004 and 2007 are taking part in the Roma Inclusion Decade, a project set up in a way that has ensured very tangible results on the ground. Indeed, Commissioner Laszlo Andor’s current initiatives for getting new kinds of structures in place at the EU-level are strikingly similar to what has already been achieved in many countries of Southeast Europe, some of which have joined the EU, some of which are quite far from EU membership.

Perhaps surprisingly, the political drive that was required for the Decade project to come to life had much to do with the lack of clarity concerning the demands of EU enlargement. Political leaders in accession countries viewed Roma inclusion as a pre-condition for becoming fully “European”. And, in the process, they surpassed many “old” member states. Suddenly aware of this mismatch, some 2004 accession countries considerably decreased, at least initially, their efforts within the Decade once they joined (a repeat of this was avoided in 2007 both by the EU having already placed the Roma issue higher on the agenda, and by the Decade itself having established some momentum in Southeast Europe).

Certainly the EU cannot have the same kind of leverage over its member states that the World Bank or the United Nations Development Programme (and, most of all, the EU) have over the impoverished countries of Southeast Europe. However, some crucial elements of the enlargement experience can surely be integrated into the EU’s internal policies, both through the OMC in education and in the overall approach to non-discrimination concerning all vulnerable ethnic communities in Europe, including second-generation immigrants facing difficulties with integration.

The involvement of civil society representing minority groups is an essential component. Through the Roma Inclusion Decade, participating countries’ governments are obliged to work on a par with Roma organizations at every step, and each official government report has been accompanied by a shadow report developed by civil society. The European Union itself is highly dedicated to this form of participative exchange – however, the EU mostly works with large European networks, which does not ensure that a similar approach to civil society is taken within member states. In many member states, particularly those with an egalitarian tradition emphasizing individual human rights and those where minority representation is ensured mainly through ethnic political parties, this form of minority civil society does not exist, and EU-support should be directed towards strengthening this voice in particular.

In addition to its participatory approach, the Decade project holds other potentially valuable lessons for the EU. One is that the policy coordination involved requires more than mere information exchange between the different countries and policy sectors involved (education, healthcare, housing, and employment). While these mechanisms are far from perfectly developed in Decade countries, relevant OMC tools would benefit from a closer inspection of existing coordination within the Decade, as well as from an open mind about extending some of it to other member countries and different beneficiary groups.

The task of integrating and ensuring equal participation of minorities that face exclusion and are subject to a variety of linguistic and cultural barriers is far from easy. The countries of Central and Southeastern Europe which embarked on the process (at least concerning the Roma) continue to face difficulties no different from those faced by EU member states with a considerably longer democratic tradition. It takes a great deal of strength to admit to racial inequalities in one’s society. However, the “beacon of hope” that the EU represents for countries knocking on its doors already has the policy tools required to deal with the new challenges. It has only to muster the nerve to speak about them – and to learn from others.

Irena Cerović is a political analyst and a Programme Co-ordinator at the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence in Serbia.