According to the European Anti – Poverty Network (EAPN), one in seven persons in the EU faces the risk of poverty. Children and older persons are at even higher risk. One of the causes of neglect towards the situations of these individuals is that many in power associate poverty with developing countries. The problem lies in the European institutional constructions of identity.
According to EAPN, poverty is a state of being that violates our human rights. They argue that poverty:
“is a direct attack on people’s fundamental rights, limits the opportunities they have to achieve their full potential, brings high costs to society and hampers sustainable economic growth. Poverty also reflects failures in the systems for redistributing resources and opportunities in a fair and equitable manner. These lead to deep-seated inequalities and thus to the contrast of excessive wealth concentrated in the hands of a few while others are forced to live restricted and marginalised lives, even though they are living in a rich economic area.”
The poor are usually socially excluded from social services and activities wealthier citizens take for granted. Even governmentally funded education is hard to obtain for them. According to one of the quotes of someone experiencing poverty, “[t]he system is too complicated, I don’t know where to get what.”
Since the EU does not focus on extreme poverty, the poorest are excluded from many EU programs. Roma are such a case. Individuals, who are not so poor in their countries, are very poor on the EU level. However, the EU mostly focuses on relative poverty levels and fails to recognize that some poor individuals are poorer than other poor individuals.
Another problem is a low level of social mobility in the EU. According to Eurochild, “[w]e live in a society where the socio-economic status into which children are born is still probably the most important determinant of their well-being, education outcomes, and employment prospects.” However, many new EU member countries are poor. It is hard to imagine how the poorest of their members will then be able to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.
On 10 and 11 May 2012, European Commission hosted an 11th European Meeting on People Experiencing Poverty. According to their findings, since 2008 there has been an increase in homelessness and poverty. The most vulnerable groups are women, children and the Roma. However, according to the Lisbon Treaty, the right to adequate housing is a fundamental right. Housing is such a problem for the poor, that in Belgium, for example, it takes up 60% of the family’s income, whereas an average person spends only 30%.
One of the roots of this problem is that at the national level, the right to housing is not recognized by many countries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 mandates that everyone be entitled to adequate food, housing and other necessities. Other treaties follow, with the latest being the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The European Social Charter and the newest Lisbon Treaty too include rights to adequate housing. However, immigrants and the Roma especially still oftentimes live in subhuman conditions, which threaten their own safety and health.
Additionally, many EU countries neither acquiesce to the overall EU policies nor accept their citizens equally. However, the EU is founded on ideals of respect and tolerance:
“Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights are the values on which the European Union is founded. Embedded in the Treaty on European Union, they have been reinforced by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Countries seeking to join the EU must respect human rights, and so must countries which have concluded trade and other agreements with it.”
In addition to facing financial problems from the recession, the EU is faced with problems of deep social division, racism, and social injustice. If the European project is to work out, it must embrace everyone, especially in times like this. Since 1979, when the first elections to the European Parliament were held, the Parliament still holds little power and has little say over most crucial national policies. But some of these policies are crucial to the most vulnerable, who have no say in domestic matters. Perhaps in the future the protection of the vulnerable will improve, but history has shown us over and over again that the weakest rarely benefit from anything. But then the question arises: how can the poorest in the new EU member countries ever hope to benefit from the European project?