In May 2021, as the EU-27 began to take a breather from the coronavirus health crisis, EU leaders met in Porto, northern Portugal, to address the social consequences of the pandemic — and its economic impact.
The summit, organised under the Portuguese presidency of the EU Council, sought to put people at the heart of the EU’s recovery plans and set three headline targets to ensure that no one was left behind in the promised social Europe.
The wish list was to reduce the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 15 million, to achieve a minimum employment rate of 78 percent and to ensure that at least six out of 10 European adults participated in training every year.
Two years after that meeting, the Portuguese government has organised a forum — not a summit, as it does not currently hold the presidency — to “renew the spirit of debate and convergence of the Porto Social Summit” and to introduce new concerns and priorities into the debate.
On Friday (26 May), there will be a series of side events on tackling homelessness and child poverty, and on Saturday the keynote event will take place, bringing together members of the European institutions, as well as employment and social affairs ministers from countries such as Belgium, Sweden, France and Spain, and representatives of business and civil society organisations.
However, not all networks will be able to attend and not all are happy with how the Forum has been organised.
Firstly, because of the timing. The dates and objectives of the event were only announced to the other member states by the Portuguese delegation in March, and the dates chosen clashed with the congress of the European Trade Union Confederation in Berlin from 23 to 26 May, which is bringing together representatives of up to 45 million European workers.
Secondly, because of the management and lack of information.
A quick search on the Internet for ‘Porto Social Forum 2023’ yields only a few results.
Another on Twitter provides a few more, where an ‘official’ account with less than 60 followers has been sharing information and the programme for less than a week.
For the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI), which represents more than 5 million European workers, “the Porto Social Forum fails to live up to the spirit of the Pillar of Social Rights”.
But the union was excluded from the forum because of the event’s “limited capacity”, the Portuguese permanent representation to the EU replied in a letter to CESI.
“How can inclusiveness and a maximum outreach be achieved if you exclude smaller organisations and networks, which however represent a considerable share of workers, citizens and consumers?”, CESI told EUobserver.
“In terms of the organisation of the event, we do share some of the frustration already expressed by others”, explained Social Platform, an umbrella of some 40 representative European networks of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
At the same time, they welcomed Portugal’s initiative to organise it outside the EU presidency calendar, “without the resources and authority to organise an official EU summit”.
The frustration of some social partners and trade unions has been exacerbated by the current situation in Europe and the fear that momentum will be lost and the social challenges facing member states will be forgotten.
EU Social progress falls short
Since the Portuguese summit, a war has broken out on the European continent, followed by an energy crisis and a cost-of-living crisis.
“The multiple crises have exacerbated structural and systemic inequalities, social exclusion and poverty,” said European social networks such as Caritas, Eurodiaconia or the European Anti Poverty Network in a joint declaration.
In the year of the summit, more than 95 million people in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion — almost one in five Europeans.
“Rising poverty is the most pressing social issue in Europe today,” the social organisations said.
And additional crises since then have added to the pressure to achieve these goals, says the Parliament in its resolution ‘Roadmap for a social Europe: two years after Porto’.
“It is clear that the ambition was there, but the results, unfortunately, not yet”, socialist MEP Agnes Jongerius told EUobserver. “We haven’t made enough progress”.
According to Eurofound’s analysis, the people who need training the most, such as the youngest, the least qualified or the least educated, benefitted the least from opportunities.
And although around half of the member states have already surpassed the 78 percent employment target for 2030, the European Commission’s projections indicate that not all will achieve it in time.
The EU Parliament’s position is clear and calls for new targets.
“So far, the EU has fallen short on fully implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights”, contains the parliament’s resolution.
The EU’s work in the social field does not end with the minimum wage and pay transparency directives, she added. “If we want to make this promise a reality, we need to step up our gains,” said Jongerius.
The Parliament’s resolution is a long list on the state of play of social policy in the EU and what it sees as priorities for the rest of this mandate, but also for the next ones.
These include the creation of quality jobs, the eradication of poverty by 2030, the setting of targets for zero deaths at work, increased social investment, the protection of workers in the face of the green and digital transitions and the social conditionality of European funds.
And the Socialist MEP summed it up well: “Put the money where the law is”, she said, which means revising the public procurement directive.
“Social conditionality should be the next golden rule,” she added.