Equality: the cornerstone of real inclusion

Katrine SteinfeldTue, 7 June 2016Inclusion

Following the Great Recession of 2008, inclusion in Europe has focused mainly on what we call ‘inclusive growth.’ Measures to combat mass unemployment are the primary target of inclusion policies; access to services and other welfare measures are often sidelined.

Access to, for instance, adequate housing, health, social security and education are deemed less important for economic growth. Therefore they are more frequently sacrificed when austerity forces decision makers to make difficult choices. The task to prioritise between social and economic rights in this manner lies with our governments, and their prerogative to do so is enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which all our European states are party to.

If we accept economic growth as the top priority, we must ask ourselves whether the concept of ‘inclusive growth,’ with its focus on tackling mass unemployment (with varying degrees of success), is a truly inclusive solution to the problems faced by Europe today? Or are some of us left behind?

Equality is a crucial, yet frequently neglected dimension, when public debate reflects on our access to certain social services, or the lack thereof. EU equal treatment legislation only covers equal access to essential services like healthcare, housing or education on the ground of race. In practice, that means our legislators have forgotten that providing services in a non-discriminatory manner is as important as whether we are able to provide those services at all. It is our hope that the proposed European Pillar of Social Rights will go some way towards providing a remedy. Otherwise President Juncker’s dream of achieving a social triple ‘A’ rating may fade fast, with serious implications for whether we are able to deliver not just inclusive but also sustainable growth.

Following hard on the heels of the Great Recession, the refugee crisis embroiling Mediterranean countries and washing across our continent challenges us to re-examine the way we organise ourselves. Are the assumptions underlying our policies correct? In other words, is neglect of services truly an inclusive growth model? Or does it lead to exclusion for our own citizens as well as the newly-arrived refugees?

The latent assumption that austerity measures have an equal impact across the board is challenged by research looking at the particularly detrimental impact austerity measures have on vulnerable groups in society. European Equality Bodies seek to highlight discriminatory policies where they occur, whether it relates to early retirement disproportionately impacting women, discriminatory housing policies, or education policies that indirectly discriminate vulnerable groups, such as Roma and Travellers.

A palpable sense of deprivation characterises public discourse in many of our countries. Parties at both ends of the political spectrum lay the blame at the door of newcomers, economic migrants and refugees alike. A sense of injury and injustice fosters xenophobia and hostility, and the underlying tone of many a debate is “Why should we provide for all these people when we can barely provide for ourselves?”

Though many of our fears are unfounded, it is a fact that austerity measures have had an impact on our ability to access not only our rights as citizens, but also our ability to access justice if our rights are violated. Some Equality Bodies in Europe have seen increases in the numbers of victims of discrimination as a consequence of the financial crisis; others have seen a drop in the number of people willing to make a complaint. Many Equality Bodies have themselves suffered budget cuts that have a negative impact on their capacity to assist victims. In practice, this means that we are failing to empower our own citizens as rights holders. Failing to ensure an inclusive society for our own citizens is a poor starting point for integrating newcomers.

Equality Bodies form an integral part of the institutional architecture to promote equality and combat discrimination in all our countries. The EU Directives require all Members States, accession countries, and countries in the European Economic Area to designate an equality body for promoting equal treatment. However, the Directives only set out minimum standards for the competences of equality bodies and for limiting their functional independence. They do not guarantee complete independence, effectiveness, sufficient powers and adequate resources.

One way to empower our citizens as rights holders would be to ensure that they have easy access to justice when their rights are violated, and that our national expert bodies have the necessary resources to promote equality. A set of standards that reflect the changed context of Equality Bodies today, enabling them to realise their full potential. It would go a long way toward stimulating and supporting the achievement of full equality in practice and the elimination of discrimination.

On 16 June, the European Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly will speak about ‘Equal Treatment as a cornerstone of Good Administration’ in Brussels. If we want to face the challenges of our time and prepare ourselves for the future, we need to examine whether we are setting up good administrative systems at the local, national and European level; in the private as well as the public sector. Have we set ourselves up to succeed by ensuring respect for diversity or are we setting ourselves up to fail? Ensuring equal treatment and easy access to justice builds trust in our societies, and trust is a necessary prerequisite for solidarity and true inclusion. 

We need to reaffirm our commitment to equality in Europe today. Otherwise we are in danger of entering a race to the bottom, where disadvantage breeds disadvantage, and where multiple inequalities pile up to tear at the fabric of society. We cannot afford to let some of us fall behind, lest we all fall behind in the long run.

Katrine Steinfeld (Policy Officer) works for Equinet, the European Network of Equality Bodies, facilitating peer learning and exchanges as well as informing equality law and policies at European level. 


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