The European Commission and the Bulgarian Presidency of the European Union marked the 60th Anniversary of the European Social Fund (ESF) by a major conference held in Sofia on 15/16 February 2018. As the title suggests it was a forward-looking event where participants had an opportunity to discuss priorities for the post-2020 MFF in the field of inclusion and social protection. The area defined as most important for further improvement towards cohesion of Europe is education.
In his opening speech, Tomislav Donchev, Deputy Prime Minister of Bulgaria emphasised that the EU has indeed been a social project and thus set the tone of the conference. The event was declared to be a key milestone in the consultation process on strategic and programme aspects of future EU investment in people and was planned to offer a platform for expressing positions and ideas on the topic, as well as identifying main trends for the future investment in human capital. While there was little criticism of the Pillar of Social Rights, workshop sessions offered possibilities for raising concerns around inclusion and lifelong learning. The workshop on work-life balance was totally overtaken by stakeholder groups that are fully supportive the EC’s current proposal that would seriously violate both the rights of parents and children.
Michel Servoz, Director General of DG Employment and Social Affairs drew a clear agenda for the post-2020 period. He emphasised that skills, competences, education and employability will clearly be future priorities of the EU. There is a need to find synergies of different programmes for investing in people more than in previous periods. The EU needs to trust those using funding opportunities and simplify funding processes. The Social Pillar will provide the basis for a policy framework, but there is a need to link it more strongly to the European Semester process. Policy recommendations should guide the use of ESF in a contractual way. He also called for flexibility within the new MFF as there is a need for re-programming in case of a major change, like it happened with the migrant crisis during the current MFF.
On behalf of the Bulgarian Presidency, Zornitsa Roussinova reinforced the need for a social focus of the next MFF and the importance of solidarity as a guiding principle. She emphasised the need for ESF to keep its cohesion element.
Thiébaut Weber, representative of ETUC, made reference to and voiced strong criticism about the Communication of the EC on the new modern MFF published the day before the conference. He recalled that while on the level of rhetoric social inclusion is a focus, the Communication shows a focus of the MFF on borders and defence, there is no clear commitment to the implementation of the Social Pillar and social cohesion funds are planned to be decreased. He emphasised the need to find solutions to eliminate inequalities, especially the wage differences in different countries. He underlined that simply doubling Erasmus+ will not solve anything, and called for policy makers to shift focus of education funds to clearly prioritise local access to lifelong learning everywhere in Europe. He also called for politicians not to only make efforts to repair damages, but anticipate future challenges and address them in time.
Alex Christopoulos from LUMOS Foundation outlined a clear agenda for inspiration for the next MFF that any parent in Europe can subscribe to: invest in the family, in parents to really ensure child rights and the best interest of each child regardless the country they were born in. In the coming months we will see whether policy makers will listen to this.
Find out more about the event on the EC website