Pushing on social issues as EU grapples with Covid fallout, World News

EU leaders meet on Friday to study the economic wreckage of the Covid pandemic, with summit host Portugal having high hopes that they will swear austerity and tackle poverty.

Twenty-four of the 27 EU leaders will meet in person in the riverside city of Porto for a summit that will make social issues a priority after two historic economic crises hit Europe in the past decade.

Apologizing for the pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will only attend by video conference, as will the Maltese Prime Minister.

It will be a disappointment for Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who wanted the so-called social summit to be the centerpiece of his country’s six-month EU presidency and for Germany and the Netherlands to be in top of his list to hear the anti-austerity message.

The 27 EU Member States are deeply divided on social issues. Countries in the south, like France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, are determined to push for the protection of economically vulnerable people.

The rich countries of the North, attached to their successful national models, and the countries of the East, which fear losing their competitiveness, refuse to go further in this direction.

Nicolas Schmit, the European Commissioner for Social Affairs, said the health crisis had exposed the limits of the free market to address all problems.

“The markets could not do much against a virus,” the Luxembourger told AFP in Brussels, before heading to Portugal.

“There is an ideology that advocates this, that trusts the markets to solve all problems.”

‘Best vaccine’

Much has changed in Europe since the eurozone debt crisis, when Germany and its allies imposed cost-cutting reforms on countries plunged into insolvency, in exchange for bailout loans.

Last year, EU member states agreed to a massive € 750 billion stimulus package which, instead of loans, relies mostly on direct payments and will be financed by joint borrowing between all Member States.

But Costa and like-minded leaders would like Europe to go further and create EU-wide social policies such as a minimum wage, employment programs and a cap on the level of poverty. in Europe.

This wishlist, gathered in what is called the ‘social pillar’, was originally drafted in 2017 at a similar summit in Sweden, a year after the populist-fueled Brexit referendum , frightened the EU.

Read also | Poland and Hungary push against ‘gender equality’ at EU social summit

Putting these policies into practice “is the best vaccine against inequality, fear and populism,” Costa said ahead of the summit.

“Strong message”

The official program will start on Friday with a conference bringing together representatives of civil society, social partners and EU leaders Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen.

This will be followed by the summit, where leaders will first meet to discuss the latest developments in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the negative turn taken in relations with Russia.

The social affairs discussion will take place on Saturday, before a video call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and with the participation of Merkel, Rutte and Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela via video link.

Leaders are expected to go further and approve a non-binding “action plan” which was presented by Schmit, the commissioner, in March.

It sets three goals for 2030: raise the employment rate to 78%, provide vocational training to at least 60% of adults each year and reduce the number of people at risk of poverty by 15 million.

While the leaders will not take any concrete decisions, Schmit said he expected “a strong political message”.

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