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New Study on Social Justice in the EU

Social Imbalance in Europe is on the Rise

September 15, 2014 | by DANIEL SCHRAAD-TISCHLER

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s new Social Justice Index finds that children and young people are affected most by the increasing social division in Europe. This threatens the future viability of the European project and calls for a European social strategy.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s new Social Justice Index compares the justice of all 28 European Union (EU) countries. Its findings are cause for concern – yet also offer the opportunity to invigorate the European integration project.

The index comes to the conclusion that while Europe is making some progress in terms of economic stabilization, the level of social justice has declined in recent years in most states in the EU. The social imbalance between the affluent northern European states and the many southern and south-eastern European countries has considerably intensified over the course of the crisis.

Whilst there still is a high level of social inclusion in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, social injustice in countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy or Hungary has increased. In the crisis-ridden states of the EU in particular, it has not been possible to administer the massive cuts in a balanced manner.

Alongside the North-South divide, the analysis is particularly critical of the growing imbalance between generations. Young people are much harder hit by social injustice than those who are older. 28 per cent of children and young people are threatened by poverty or social exclusion right across the EU, which is significantly more than in 2009. In contrast, poverty among the elderly has declined in several cases. This development might threaten the European integration project.

Gap between North and South as well as Young and Old

The top rankings of the Nordic countries and the Netherlands are mainly due to good policy outcomes in the fields of poverty reduction, labour market access and social cohesion and non-discrimination. Although the Nordic countries noticeably feel the effects of the crisis, the degree of social inclusion in these countries is still high.

Finland and the Netherlands were recently able to reduce child poverty contrary to the EU-wide trend. In the top ranking countries, the challenge for the future is especially to overcome the continuing poor access opportunities of immigrants to the labour market, as well as fighting the relatively high youth unemployment in Sweden (23.5 per cent) and Finland (19.9 per cent).

But the problems at the lower end of the rankings are of a different quality: Greece suffers from a youth unemployment rate of almost 60 per cent now, a rapid increase in the risk of poverty, not least among children and adolescents (from 28.2 per cent in 2007 to 35.4 per cent in 2012), a health system that has been hard hit by austerity measures, discrimination towards minorities due to increasing radical political forces and a huge mountain of debt as mortgage for future generations.

There is a similar picture in the other southern European countries. Youth unemployment is the biggest justice problem in Spain, with a figure of over 55 per cent. In addition, the risk of poverty among children and adolescents at a figure of 32.6 per cent is more than twice as high as the corresponding risk of poverty among older people at 14.5 per cent.

Furthermore, the country comparison shows that economic performance is indeed an important requirement, but does not automatically guarantee social justice. For example, this can be seen in the comparison of Ireland with Sweden. Ireland has indeed a similarly high GDP per capita like Sweden, but ranks considerably below average when it comes to social justice (rank 18 compared to rank 1) and counts as one of the biggest losers in the country comparison. By contrast, countries such as the Czech Republic (rank 5), Slovenia (9) and Estonia (10) show that despite only having average economic performance, a comparably high degree of social justice is still possible.

Need for European social strategy

The topic of social justice should therefore play a bigger role in European politics in the future. The EU should not be perceived as only a guardian of economic stability. It should develop an integrated strategy that also includes, for the first time, a consistent and all-encompassing policy to combat social injustice in addition to the recent growth prospects.

For the member states in turn, it must depend even more on making the right choices between necessary budget consolidation and important investments in the future. Investing in equal opportunities for all citizens is not just important as a means to foster social justice but also for countries’ innovation potential, competitiveness and economic stability.

Dr. Daniel Schraad-Tischler is Senior Project Manager of the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project.

About the SGI project:

With the new EU Social Justice Index, the Bertelsmann Stiftung is investigating six different dimensions of social justice based on 35 criteria: poverty, education, employment, health, generational justice as well as social cohesion and non-discrimination. The foundation will analyse the development of participation opportunities in the 28 EU states annually in future. The Social Justice Index will soon be supplemented by the EU Reform Barometer, which will track the specific reform efforts of member states in the individual areas of social justice. Combined the "Social Justice Index" and the "EU Reform Barometer" make up the "Social Inclusion Monitor Europe" (SIM).

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