Europe’s deepening inequalities are leaving too many behind

Despite the European Union’s commitment to ‘leave no one behind’, millions of people in Europe are falling victim to widening inequalities, a newly released EU-wide report concludes. Meanwhile, European governments are not doing enough to bridge the chasm.

On Tuesday 18 June, ‘Falling through the cracks: Exposing inequalities in the European Union and beyond’, a major new report on inequalities in Europe was released by SDG Watch Europe and Make Europe Sustainable for All (MESA), two Europe-wide civil society platforms which seek to raise awareness of and promote the ambitious implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs are the world’s crisis plan to end poverty and protect the planet, and tackling inequalities is one of the 17 goals that all EU countries have signed up to deliver in the coming years. Inequalities also cut across and affect many of the other SDGs.

The release was timed to coincide with the European Development Days (EDD), whose theme also related to addressing inequalities and “building a world which leaves no one behind”.

While visitors and delegates to the event received a wealth of information about inequalities in developing nations and how the EU social model could help tackle these inequalities, missing from the official programme was how the much-vaunted European model was under assault and how many forms of inequalities were widening in a part of the world which prides itself on its egalitarianism.

A Fight Inequality campaigner talks about the report with a passerby. Image: Sonia Goicoechea

To raise awareness of this oversight, a team of ‘Fight Inequality’ activists, dressed fetchingly in sandwich boards with eye-catching designs, talked to hundreds of visitors outside the EDD venue in Brussels about inequalities in Europe and about the report.

“Inequality is not only a fact in the Global South, it is also a problem in Europe,” Patrizia Heidegger, director of global policies and sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said during a packed side event at the EDD.

“The EU is one of the wealthiest regions on the planet and prides itself on being a leader in social progress and sustainability,” she explained. “The reality is quite different.”

Fractured lives

Falling through the cracks: Exposing inequalities in the European Union and beyond’ finds that the European Union and its member states are failing millions of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in Europe and the wider world, as significant socio-economic and environmental inequalities worsen or persist.

The report maps the reality of various forms of inequality, both nationally and at the European level. It includes national reports from 15 countries that, together, represent nearly three-quarters of the EU’s combined population and 11 thematic reports exploring key dimensions of inequality, including gender, age, disability, ethnicity and homelessness.

“The gap between the richest and poorest in Europe is widening – 20% of the EU population earns less than the poverty threshold in their country,“ explained Ingo Ritz, director of programmes at Global Call to Action against Poverty, one of the organisations involved in the report.

But the story does not end at the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. “Across the EU, 10% of those employed and living in poverty. The gender pay gap in the EU is 16% and much higher in some countries. The gender pension gap stands at 40% in the EU, exceeding 45% in Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands,” Ritz elaborated. “The richest men in France have a life expectancy of 84 years, while the poorest men have a life expectancy of 71 years.”

Inequalities are also sharpening in other European countries too. In Germany, “40% of full-time workers live below the poverty line, which also affects the lives of families and children,” noted Anja Ruhlemann of Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF), which also contributed to the report.

When it comes to age, “young people have become the population group at greatest risk of poverty and social exclusion, with more than one in four young people affected by this risk,” the report observes in its chapter on youth.

In countries where age-related inequalities are at their starkest and where young people lack opportunities, there is enormous pressure to migrate in search of a better life. However, young people are fighting to create opportunities at home. “I don’t want to leave my country because I want to be a part of my country’s future,” Teodora Grau (16), a youth activist from Romania and a member of the World Vision Children Consultative Council, told the audience at the report launch.

Sustained demands for sustainability

Falling through the cracks: Exposing inequalities in the European Union and beyond’ makes numerous recommendations designed to tackle, reduce or eliminate the inequalities it highlights.

A group of recommendations revolve around repairing Europe’s frayed social safety net and strengthening it. Examples in this regard include introducing a basic minimum income for all, ensuring equal pay for equal work, and the expansion of social transfer and social protection policies.

On the other side of the balance sheet, the report demands that taxation policies be reformed to help reduce inequalities, protect the environment, to encourage more sustainable lifestyles and to avoid harming countries outside the EU. Several recommendations relate to human rights and policies to overcome discrimination against women, the young and people with disabilities, among others.

Rather than the current fixation on economic growth, the European Union should seek to enhance quality of life and welfare, the document insists. Towards this end, the report proposes that the EU be guided by a Sustainability and Wellbeing Pact.

Campaigners have been calling for the EU to put sustainable development at the heart of its agenda for many years. Civil society even launched a Manifesto for a Sustainable Europe in September last year.

Since the European election last month, demands have become more vocal for the EU to deliver on the SDGs, by making them and sustainable development in general the “golden thread” that runs through all of the EU’s work.