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CORRECTED: EU leaders tackle Brussels’ role in fight against poverty

Published on May 07, 2021

EU leaders were to confront Friday the fight against poverty and inequality as the continent emerges from Covid-19 pandemic, but members remain divided about Brussels’ role in rebuilding a fair economy.

Most of the EU’s 27 leaders will make 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 an important European priority.

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

As part of what is dubbed the “social summit”, the meeting began on Friday with conferences bringing together representatives of civil society and trade unionists, with French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders expected to make an appearance.

The events are being held in Porto’s imposing old customs house just days after the country entered the final phase of lifting Covid restrictions with one of the lowest incidence rates in Europe.

For Fernanda Martins, who runs a small family cafe with her husband in the shadow the summit venue, 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 woman who reopened her establishment a month ago but has despaired of seeing it deserted.

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 said “there should be more training, because without training, wages are very low”.

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

Leftist parties have organised a counter-summit and plan to demonstrate in the streets of Porto on Saturday, with frustration that the two-day meeting amounts to little more than a talk 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 are living in poverty due to the increase in precarious work contracts used by digital platforms for food delivery and taxis.

With the rise in poverty over the past year, particularly among young people and the most exposed workers, the pandemic has “revealed the importance of social issues” in the EU, European Employment Commissioner Nicolas Schmit told AFP.

– Austerity ‘lesson learned’ –

The EU’s 27 member states are deeply divided on social issues. The countries of the south — 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.

But a lot has changed in Europe since the eurozone debt crisis, when Germany and allies imposed cost-cutting reforms on Greece and Portugal in return for bailout loans.

Last year, the EU member states agreed a massive 750-billion-euro ($905 billion) recovery plan that instead of loans relies mainly on direct payouts and will be financed by joint borrowing among all member states.

Schmit said “we have seen the consequences” of too much austerity.

“Rising populism, poverty, unemployment. We realised that the recipes were perhaps not adapted. I think the lesson has been learned,” he said.