The unbearable burden of inequalities (or the 2030 Agenda as a roadmap to fight inequalities in Europe)

by Alissa Ghils and Barbara Caracciolo

[The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors]

The 2030 Agenda relevance within EU domestic policies

Three years after its adoption, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has not yet been fully incorporated in EU domestic policies and it is still considered, largely, as a relevant framework for EU external relations policies and, namely, development cooperation policy. This is also demonstrated, among others, by the fact that the EU has not yet developed a comprehensive 2030 Agenda implementation strategy (even if repeatedly called for by the Council of Ministers and, recently, by the Contribution of the SDG Multi-Stakeholder Platform to the Reflection Paper “Towards a sustainable Europe by 2030” October 2018).

Nevertheless, the ongoing and interdependent social, environmental, economic and political crises that Europe is facing today, are a clear call for a radical transformation of the current economic development model.  Indeed, while in comparison to most other advanced economies, Europe is still often considered a shining example of relative social cohesion and fairness, inequality and the socioeconomic divide has been on the rise in Europe, and has intensified since the onset of the global financial crisis.  It is worth reminding some basic ‘inequalities facts’:

  • the 10% of wealthiest households hold 50% of total wealth;
  • there are still 1.4 million fewer jobs in the EU in 2015 compared with 2007;
  • low-skilled youth who are disconnected from both employment and learning represent 17% of 15-29 year-old in the EU, and risk being permanently left behind in the labour market;
  • women’s gross hourly earnings were on average 16.2 % below those of men in the EU;
  • more than one third of Europeans live in financial insecurity; and
  • children from an advantaged socioeconomic background will score on average 20% higher in mathematics than a child from a disadvantaged background, showing a gap in education outcomes among individuals with different parental socioeconomic backgrounds.  

Mounting evidence shows that unequal societies are dysfunctional: societies with larger income differences have, amongst other things, worse health, damaged social relationships and higher violence, lower trust among individuals, etc. Inequality can also lower social trust in institutions and fuel political and social instability. The higher the level of economic inequality, the higher will be the social barriers between groups and the less individuals will feel familiar with and connect to other people.

Possible ways forward

The idea that the 2030 Agenda can pave the way for a much needed radical, systemic, change of the current economic development model was debated at the recently-held SOLIDAR European Conference “The unsustainable burden of inequalities, and is at the centre of the Independent Commission on Sustainable Equality Report. The report, which has benefited of valuable input from a CSOs Task Force, states that “In the absence of profound change these crises will lead to democratic collapse, either because authoritarian populist and extremist forces will gain decisive power across Europe, or because these economic, social or environmental crises will have reached a destabilising stage for society”.

The Report of the Independent Commission for Sustainable Equality sets a series of concrete policy proposals which should be pursued to bring the fight against inequalities and, more broadly sustainability, at the core of European agenda and in the way decisions are taken. The main proposals are around the following issues:

  1. Reshape capitalism for people and planet making sure the business sector respects legitimate responsibilities towards society
  2. Take democracy back for everyone  
  3. A new and effective European anti-poverty plan to reduce the number of people at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion  
  4. A new Social Europe of strong rights and protection for all through a comprehensive and ambitious implementation of all of the European Pillar of Social Rights’ principles and rights
  5. New fairness in incomes and wages
  6. A new “space-aware” and “bottom-up” approaches to territorial cohesion  
  7. A sustainable and technological transition that takes everyone along
  8. States must protect people against old and new risks building social-ecological welfare states and mitigating environmental inequality
  9. New solidarity through fair taxation
  10. A Sustainable Development Pact embedded in a new Sustainable Development Cycle, and based on complementary social and environmental indicators and targets – instead of the outdated European Semester

Our Europe, our choice

In a few months, we, European citizens, will have the chance to shape the future of Europe by deciding the composition of the next European Parliament and, hence probably, by casting our vote and deciding on the next European Commission’s President. This pre-election phase is considered a decisive moment to ask our candidates to take some concrete policy commitments to fight inequalities, promote sustainability and adopt a more participatory decision-making process.

The Report of the Independent Commission on Sustainable Equality, as well as the Manifesto for a Sustainable Europe for its Citizens contain concrete suggestions that should be taken into account by those asking for our trust. These should also be the backbone of our sustainability scoreboard to check and monitor that engagements are followed by actions.

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