Time to talk about 118 million citizens into poverty (but EU Parliament is empty)

Brussels, 4 October 2018 – The first reading at the Plenary sitting of the ‘Minimum income for a fair Europe: a right for citizens’, exposed how 118 million EU citizens living in poverty is not an issue at the top of the agenda of the busy MEPs: the Parliament was nearly empty.

Though art 14 of of the European Pillar of Social Rights states “those with no sufficient economic resources have right to access to a minimum income” does not leave much space to interpretations. The simple concept of minimum income each member state should give citizens struggling with poverty, is still addressed as a matter to be waged, contended and balanced on the scale of diverse political perspectives.

Favourable statements have been, anyway, made by the majority of MEPs taking part to the discussion of the motion presented by Laura Agea, Italian 5 Star Movement (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group). But a series of issues and counter-arguments emerged.​

The main ones:

is the minimum income a measure to be implemented and regulated at national level only or at EU stage? Should it be a short term transitory measure? What categories should have priority access to this form of benefit? Should EU citizens living in the host country be entitled and, in case, after how many years of residency? Should that be set a EU legally binding directive?

While Stressing that Alde group does not believe in welfare societies, Enrique Calvet Chambon backs an “intelligent implementation of a minimum income, but only as extra and transitory measure to avoid social exclusion. This has to be delivered at national level with the Commission doing what it can and urgently”.

Mercedes Bresso, Italian PD – S&D group, moving the attention from minimum income to job wages stated “We primarily support dignity in work”, labelling Italian government’s new minimum income law as discriminatory because exclusively for Italians when the European law prescribes instead all EU citizens living in the hosting country would be entitled.

Same views about work, but opposite on migrants from Lampros Fountoulis; (Non-attached Members; Greece Popular Association) “The main target must be to create jobs… A minimum income risks to be exploited by migrants who might not be interested in looking for work if they receive a basic income”.

Laura Ferrara, same group of the motion, pointed out “the measure isn’t pure assistentialism, but a support aimed at introducing and driving back into society and job market those into poverty so nobody is left behind”

Amid a general confusion between the ‘wage’ and ‘income’, Gene Lambert UK Green Party (European Free Alliance group) made the subject clearer: “We are not talking about unemployment benefits here as not everybody is in position to be able to work. One into three children in London the richest region in Europe, lives below the poverty line. A minimum income is the minimum measure in order not to leave the poorest totally destitute. What EU can do is setting up the principles on which a minimum income can be based within our member states”.

Few straightforward words from Tania González Peñas – Spain, Podemos and vice chair of GUE/NGL group: “A minimum income is a right, not a gift. It should be the backbone of EU”.

“We already proposed a universal minimum income for those not into work as temporary measure but did not pass by few votes – recalls S&D Sergio Cofferati. “We need a European universal directive to set measures operating in a framework which provides for welfare”

In a logic of coherence with the EU Social Pillar. Sergio Gutiérrez Prieto, Partido Socialista Obrero Español (S&D group) highlighted the need to develop minimum income as a social scheme in every nation, but this has to be implemented at EU stage in a view of co-responsibility. “We created the minimum income in the Social Pillar not just as a matter of social justice, but also as a measure to guarantee economic efficiency, we now need a directive binding member states to it”.

“We have to change our mentality – says Julie Ward Labour Party /S&D – we see a minimum income not linked to work as undermining the value of work, but people are not only workers, they are also rights holders and active citizens”. A universal European minimum income is a “matter of urgency” to face the new challenges of the “upcoming robotization, progressive digitalisation and changes in the work environment”, is the Ward’s wise alarm.

“The core of the problem – said Patrick Le Hyarik, France, Front de Gauche (GUE/NGL group) – is that a decent minimum income must be combined with an effective right to housing and health and training which leads to a guaranteed job”. He called then commissioner Marianne Thyssen (Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility) to launch a framework directive for the protection of professional social security. “The financial resources of large businesses today the cash that is in private banks….there is lot of money around. So we need to use that for social needs”.

Italy, where the above motion comes from, has the most people at risk of poverty in Europe: according to ISTAT, in 2017 15 million people (30.% of the total population) experienced poverty, with over 5.1 million (8.4%) living in absolute poverty and extreme deprivation. Different forms of income support are adopted in 26 out of 28 EU countries, but not in Italy, until recently the new government in charge introduced a minimum income of 780 euros per month under the form of universal credit based on earnings and tax declaration, but it’s not yet clear as to whether this is based on self assessment only. Such a benefit is the first in Italian history and is going to replace the previous REI, (income for inclusion) considered a too restrictive measure not addressing the high numbers of people on the verge of poverty especially in the Southern regions.

In 2016 118 million people, 23.5% of the total EU28 population, were at risk of poverty or social exclusion (Eurostat). This means nearly one in four people in the EU experienced at least one of the following three forms of poverty: monetary poverty, severe material deprivation, living in a household with very low work intensity. Also people working full time are poor: 7.7 % of the EU population is at risk of poverty despite working 35 hours per week.

As commissioner Thyssen opened the debate mentioning these concerning data; the majority of MEPs made favourable statements on a future introduction of a minimum income as stated in the Social Pillar. Plus the EU has to comply with the 20 / 2020 target of taking 20mln citizens out of poverty within 2020 (target which has already failed).

Note:  Video / © European Union – Source © European Parliament / Copyright 2018- full video link 

Report: Emy Muzzi