Political speech delivered on 'Social Rights for All' at the Social Affairs Forum in Gothenburg

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Andreas Schönström, the vice-chair of the EUROCITIES Social Affairs Forum and deputy mayor of Malmo, gave an inspiring political speech at the Forum meeting in Gothenburg on 26 October. His speech introduced the recently-adopted EUROCITIES statement 'Social Rights for All'. You can read the full speech below.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I ask you all to travel with me back to the autumn of 2015. 

A family tries to flee from the hell in Syria to Europe. They enter a small inflated boat somewhere along the Turkish coast to do the dangerous journey to Greece. When the sun rises the next morning, the family is no more. The tragedy of the family's faith will become known to the whole world when pictures emerged of the dead body of Alan, only three years old, lying on the beach at the Turkish city Bodrum. Right then and there the cruelty of war, when the cold waves washed over the boy, became clear for each one of us.

Thousands of people were fleeing war in Syria and seeking shelter in Europe. Groups of individuals literally walking along motorways striving for freedom. And a European Union that could not cope. National states that could not agree on what should be a basic policy – how to share responsibilities in alarming circumstances.

I bring up the refugee crises as an example of how divided Europe is today, and perhaps as the prime example of how afraid people have become. Fear of your neighbour, fear of the stranger in need, has become the new ideology. 

Unfortunately, it is not surprising. When people feel unsafe and unsecure, when economic gaps allowed to grow, creating a deep abyss between those who have and those who have not, then we close ourselves, struggling to keep the little we have, prepared to build higher fences, and bigger walls around us to keep our fellow man out. The refugee crises and the lack of handling the situation were in fact a symptom of the inequality that we face in many European countries today. 

  • More Europeans are living in poverty now than before the 2008 crisis. Austerity policies have seriously affected social rights. Income inequality has grown in two-thirds of EU member states. Currently the wealthiest 20% of families earn on average five times more than the poorest 20%. 
  • Non-standard forms of employment, like part-time work and temporary contracts are on the rise. This is linked to an increase in the number of working poor. Currently, one in ten people in the EU are working poor while one in 20 face severe housing deprivation. 
  • 10% of all Europeans cannot pay rent or utilities, or even keep their house heated. Many can't access many of the things we take for granted, such as education, employment or housing. 
  • For the first time in decades younger generations have fewer opportunities for social mobility than their parents had. 

Such widening inequalities, like unequal access to childcare, education and health, are key barriers to achieving equal opportunities and a fair society. It creates divided countries, societies and cities. It brings fear into the mind of our citizens, what their future will be like, do their children have the education they need, will there be healthcare when I’m sick, a pension when I’m getting old. 

This also shows that the benefits of globalisation and EU integration are unequally distributed between people and territories. We need to think about a better redistribution of our wealth to create the conditions necessary for equal treatment and opportunities for all.

In this context, we have a golden opportunity to show that cities can lead the way in delivering the principles and rights of the pillar. We can show that we can tangibly improve people’s lives and contribute to real social progress.

It is time to change fear into courage. It is time to bring safety to those who feel unsafe, it is time to bring neighbours together, it is time to help the fellow man in need. Because we know, the road of fear and isolation is the road to destruction and racism, increasing inequality.

More than half of the principles and rights in the European Pillar of Social Rights are within the power of local authorities to implement. We can play a key role by ensuring access to quality services and promoting equal opportunities and social inclusion. Access to childcare services, long-term care, employment, quality and inclusive education, affordable housing, as well as to essential services like water and energy, are crucial to achieve equal opportunities and promote social progress in our cities.

If we unite now in our message and action, we will show that we can lead the way towards a stronger social Europe that prioritises the needs of citizens.

We are ready to do more but we need support!

Cities are ready to do more to make social rights a reality on the ground, but we need more support from the other levels of government, at regional, national and EU level.

  1. We recommend that the EU should change its economic model to support investment in people-centred policies and services. Currently, only 0.3% of the total public expenditure in the EU budget is spent on social matters such as poverty reduction, social inclusion and education. We need to increase this share of the EU budget in the future. The EU needs to shift towards new, sustainable growth models that combine economic and social policies in a holistic and integrated way. The overarching priority of the EU budget and all EU policies should be to invest in people, from education to training, to health, equality and social inclusion.
  2. We need the EU to adopt initiatives that enforce the rights enshrined in the social pillar. EU citizens need to feel that they can benefit from the pillar. For example, the most critical crisis we are currently facing in our cities is in affordable housing. We need changes to EU and national legislation to make the right to affordable housing a reality. We need member states to commit to a Council recommendation to reinforce the right to affordable and accessible housing for all.
  3. Implementing the social pillar requires sufficient resources. It is still unclear how EU funds will support the implementation of the pillar. This is unacceptable. Without earmarking EU funding, the implementation of these principles and rights will remain mere political rhetoric. Cities are committed to contribute to the effective implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights at local level, but need the means to do it. We need resources from the EU funding. The EU should support local authorities in their efforts to implement appropriate employment and social policies in line with the pillar. Long-term social investment at local level should be made a priority in the post-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework. Investment in social infrastructure should be increased in the European Fund for Strategic Investment and channelled where it is needed most; at local level. Future cohesion policy post-2020 should also respond to people’s needs and be channelled into cities, where 75% of people in the EU live.
  4. The EU social open method of coordination should open up to cities. City authorities can contribute their knowledge and experience to EU social policy and the European Semester. At the local level, we can monitor the implementation of the principles and rights of the pillar, and through mutual learning between cities can feed back into EU social policies with evidence. We propose to start a ‘local social policy coordination’ (local OMC) to capture the diverse social situations in member state territories and contribute with evidence and good practices from local level to assess implementation against the indicators from the social scoreboard.
  5. The European Pillar of Social Rights should be linked to the Urban Agenda for the EU. The urban partnerships have already piloted the multi-level governance approach and created the structures needed to do this. We need to use these partnerships to transfer the principles and rights of the social pillar into real initiatives at local, regional, national and EU levels.
  6. Cities should be involved in the debate on the European Pillar of Social Rights and the future of a social Europe. Given that most social policies are implemented at local level, cities should be involved in the design and monitoring of these policies. A stronger social Europe can only be achieved by creating a space for the meaningful and wider participation of cities in EU policies. We consider it unacceptable that the EU Social Summit will not have any representation of the large cities. This must change. The future social Europe makes no sense without the meaningful participation of cities.

Dear fellow city representatives, I call you now to join me in showing that we can lead by example. Let’s show we are united in our goal to achieve social progress and a stronger social Europe close to its citizens.

Let’s show that we are committed to deliver on these principles and rights enshrined in the social pillar and are ready to transfer them into actions on the ground that improve people’s everyday lives.

Let’s show that we can engage our citizens in the debate about the future of a social Europe and bring their concerns to the centre of the EU’s agenda.

I invite each and every one of you to identify one or two of the principles from the Social Pillar and challenge you to act on them in your city. If each of us takes one action, we will be moving in the right direction. We can be the catalyst for a social sustainable future in Europe.

My friends, let me as a conclusion say this. I started this speech by quoting Charles Dickens and his book A tale about two cities. I did this as reminder about how Europe and the world looks today.

We all live in a great continent but also a divided continent. We all share our history. A proud history which have brought democracy and liberty to millions of people not only in our continent but also around the globe. A history of great scientists who solved and explained the most complicated problems that ever faced humanity. 

But our history is also violent and cruel. In the same way, the second world war drew neighbour against neighbour so did the aftermath of the war by dividing Europe between the concurring countries, the east against the west. The European Union was formed by a simple but important promise; never again. 

My friends, let us today yet again give the promise to each other; never again, no more. Let us, not only give each other the promise by saying it, but also in terms of acting on it. Let us form the resistance against a divided Europe, against intolerant movements and their so-called leaders. Let us together show what resistance can mean when it comes from the root level, from the cities and their citizens, what it means when we in our communities can show the rest of Europe what the best of times can be. Let us, members of Eurocities, be the beacon of light."

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