László Andor, a Hungarian economist and a European Commissioner, is talking to Paweł Rogaliński about social exclusion, homelesness, poverty, and euro-socialism.
Paweł Rogaliński: – How can European Commission fight homelessness? Isn’t it the problem of national governments?
László Andor: -The primary responsibility in fighting homelessness clearly lies with the Member States, such as Poland, Germany, Italy etc. However, several factors incited the Commission to act.
– Firstly, homelessness is the most severe deprivation and contrary to the core values of the European Union; secondly, Eurobarometer studies (surveys performed on the behalf of EC – footnote P.R.) show high expectations from European citizens – they want the European institutions to take action to improve social cohesion and well-being; indeed, the Lisbon Treaty stipulates that social inclusion is a shared competence between the European Union and Member States.
– What policy can be taken to fight poverty and homelessness? Should it be more social to protect the poorest or more liberal to enlarge collective motivation?
– The Europe 2020 Strategy's objective is to create the conditions for sustainable, smart and inclusive growth. Our policies to support economic development as well as well-being will be successful only on the condition that they are balanced.
– What do you mean by saying “they are balanced”?
– This means that social protection schemes must deliver the right incentives, so that people are really encouraged to develop their economic and personal autonomy. But it also means that public policies must better support people, so that a difficulty does not become a permanent handicap. Can the people get the support they need to get a new job? Or to care of a child while taking up a job? These are concrete questions.
– Some people criticise European Union for creating the so-called euro-socialism. In Poland such a person is for example Janusz Korwin-Mikke. What would be your stance on this matter?
– This is pure fantasy. The European Union fully respects national preferences and the subsidiarity principle is fully enforced. Anyway, the diversity is real, as the share of social protection expenditure in GDP varies from 28% in Denmark to 12.9% in Romania (in Poland, 25% – forecast 2011). But it is definitely the Commission's responsibility to develop mutual learning so that social risks and challenges are better addressed in Europe: how to reduce unemployment and create jobs? How to improve the efficiency of the health care system and housing policy? How to adjust to the impact of the demographic changes?
– Is the housing policy the most effective method of preventing and fighting homelessness?
– I am eager to quote the policy recommendations from the high-level Jury of the “European Consensus Conference on Homelesness” held last 9-10 December 2010.
– What do they say?
– The assessment of the policies in Member States made by the Commission and the national administrations last year showed that the most successful strategies in fighting homelessness, and also the ones that arefinancially most efficient, tend to be the "housing first" strategies. They provide people with stable housing, as quickly as it is possible, together with adequate social mentoring. If you place people in an emergency shelter, they aredependent on your help, but if you give them a place where they can stay and organize their life, then they have higher chances to recover their autonomy.
– I would also like to raise some other issue – “The Guardian” says that the London authorities want to get rid of homeless people from this city before the Olympic Games 2012. While doing it they may break the law. Are you and the EC going to intervene?
– Generally speaking, the growing tendency in Europe to evict homeless people from the public areas goes much beyond what has to be done in some specific cites to ensure safety or public order. What our societies need is not for poverty to be hidden, but that poverty to be tackled. Rather than investing more and more in ways to deter people from sitting down here and there, it is worth developing urban policies so that the European cities can become friendlier and facilitate the inclusion of all categories of their inhabitants.
– In your opinion, do the nongovernmental organizations cope with fighting poverty?
– Just like in Poland, in all the European countries, the non governmental sector plays a crucial role in fighting poverty. As many initiatives developed within the European Year 2010 for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion showed, the NGOs raise awareness ofthe situation of the most deprived and they also contribute greatly to social innovation. Their volunteers and professionals also provide essential services. But the ultimate responsibility clearly lies with the public authorities. Nowadays, fight against poverty goes far beyond charity. It is a fundamental task of the social protection schemes and the whole spectrum of public policies.
– Unfortunately, heads of state do not always cope with the situation, which is also the problem of Poland. Don’t you think that in this case the European Commission should create subordinate institutions dealing with the problems of the poor and the homeless?
– In order to become more effective in fighting poverty, what matters is not to create new institutions, but to improve the methodologies and instruments. The European Platform against poverty that I launched in December as a flagship initiative of the Europe 2020 Strategy is intended to better mobilize the structural funds for the use of the most disadvantaged people. It also announced an initiative for social innovation and social experimentation. The intention is to support the testing of innovative measures and services on a small scale and organize a rigorous evaluation of their impact on people before they are scaled up, if successful.
Interview by Paweł Rogaliński