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EU leaders tackle Brussels’ role in fight against poverty

EU leaders stressed on Friday the importance of fighting poverty and inequality as the continent emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, but remain divided about Brussels’ role in rebuilding a fair economy.

Most of the EU’s 27 leaders made the trip to the banks of the Douro river in the Portuguese city of Porto where activists were also gathered to argue that social issues should be a European priority.

A handful of leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, were to attend only by videoconference, still concerned over spreading the coronavirus.

As part of what is dubbed the “social summit”, the meeting began Friday with conferences bringing together representatives of civil society and trade unionists, as French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders attended workshops.

“We are living unprecedented times,” delegates said, in a statement dubbed the Porto Social Committment, calling for “a transition towards a green, socially just and digital economy”.

“With unemployment and inequalities increasing due to the pandemic, it is important to channel resources where they are most needed to strengthen our economies and to focus our policy efforts on equal opportunities.”

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen told the talks, held in Porto’s imposing old customs house, this “very important social summit comes at the absolutely right time, we’ve been through a very tough year.”

Social issues such as jobs, training and combatting poverty need to be an “absolute priority” and show that “Europe can deliver”, she added.

The events are being held just days after Portugal, with one of the lowest coronavirus incidence rates in Europe, entered the final phase of lifting Covid restrictions.

– Video summit with Indian PM –

For Fernanda Martins, who runs a small family cafe nearby with her husband, Friday’s meeting meant above all the return, however briefly, of a clientele that has been missing since the pandemic hit.

“The summit has brought the area back to life and finally given us some work. That’s all we want, I hope there will be more,” said the 60-year-old who reopened her establishment a month ago but has seen few customers.

A little further on, at his ceramics shop, Manuel Andrade, 64, said he has been living off odd jobs and the solidarity of his neighbours, and receives no state subsidies.

Aware of the theme of Friday’s meeting, he called for “more training, because without training, wages are very low”.

The summit host, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, said the pandemic “highlighted the cost of precarious working conditions and gender inequalities”.

It also underlines the “need to regulate new forms of work, such as telework and digital platforms”.

The social summit will be followed by a more formal dinner, where leaders will discuss the latest developments in fighting the pandemic, including the US proposal to lift patents on anti-Covid vaccines to help developing countries.

They will again discuss social affairs on Saturday, ahead of a video summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and with Merkel and Rutte participating by video link.

– ‘Lacks ambition’ –

At the heart of the economic discussion will be a non-binding proposal by the EU executive to get countries to target an employment rate of 78 percent by 2030, train at least 60 percent of adults each year and reduce the number of people at risk of poverty by 15 million.

This would be a complement to the EU’s massive 750-billion-euro ($905 billion) recovery plan whose benefits should begin to be felt this year.

Leftist parties have organised a counter-summit and plan to demonstrate in the streets of Porto on Saturday, claiming the two-day meeting amounts to little more than a talking shop.

The EU’s social action plan “clearly lacks ambition”, said Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on human rights.

He said that 700,000 people in Europe sleep rough every night and more than 20 million workers live in poverty due to the increase in precarious work contracts used by digital platforms for food delivery and taxis.

– ‘Resistance, reluctance’ –

The EU’s 27 member states are deeply divided on social issues. The southern countries — such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal — are determined to push for the protection of the economically vulnerable.

Rich northern countries, attached to their successful national models, and the eastern countries, which fear losing their competitiveness, reject going further down this route.

“There is resistance, reluctance, moments of tension, but they are necessary for there to be progress today,” said Macron.