By Thijs Smeyers, Advocacy and Policy Coordinator at Caritas Belgium and Chair of Caritas Europa’s Social Inclusion and Integration Action Group
Every citizen of every European country has social rights. That is, of course, a good thing. Nevertheless, social rights are not at everyone’s disposal. In some countries social rights are absent or unknown. In others sufficient social rights are in place, but it is very hard for vulnerable people to take up the rights they are entitled to.
Social rights in Europe
In November 2017, the European Commission proclaimed the “European Pillar of Social Rights”. The Pillar is build up around three main themes (1) equal opportunities and access to the labour market, (2) fair working conditions and (3) social protection and inclusion. Via 20 principles, structured around those three categories, it wants to contribute to social progress by supporting fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems.
This Pillar is widely seen as a strong sign of political commitment to ensure social rights at a time when Europe is slowly recovering from a major economic crisis that caused severe social distress across the European Union. But, one of the downsides of the Pillar is the fact that there is no obligation to implement the 20 principles. In the same way, countries that do nothing with this Pillar will not be sanctioned. It would, of course, be very sad if the Pillar would join the company of the European Social Charter on the “pile of meaningless initiatives”.
Rolling out the Pillar
Therefore, it is very important to make sure that the European Pillar of Social Rights is now rolled out throughout Europe. Caritas Europa had in this sense already contacts with Tom Vandenkendelaere, Member of the European Parliament (EPP) and Chief-Negotiator on the Pillar for the European Parliament. He agreed on the remarks we had and said himself that Europe should lead the way on social issues as well. Vandenkendelaere described the Pillar as a social manual for the Member States and the European institutions.
We agree with Vandenkendelaere that civil society organisations, such as Caritas Europa, now have a vibrant role to play. We have to make sure that all Member States roll out the 20 principles of the Pillar so that the European Union can offer all European citizens the social protection they are entitled to. We also have to considerate that those social rights are implemented in a way that vulnerable people can use them to increase their living standards. We know that, already today, having formal entitlements is often not enough.
Non-take-up in Belgium
In Belgium, for example, the non-take-up rate of the guaranteed income is estimated at 57% to 76%, with an over-take-up at between 5% and 24%. Almost 60% of people entitled to an increased reimbursement of healthcare expenditure are not claiming it.
The Eighth Belgian Interfederal Poverty Report , published in 2015, also states that social rights and social protection are under pressure due to different factors. In conversations with people experiencing poverty, they noted a rise in the feeling that society is changing, in the sense that social exclusion is perceived more and more as unavoidable and that it has become accepted. People who have to seek for help are increasingly looked upon in a different way, judged for their capacity and willingness. Policy is following likewise, resulting in several new measures that put a stigma on help-seeking and claiming benefits, which thus elevates the informal barriers to taking up entitlements.
In our daily work at Caritas Belgium, we notice that it is very difficult for people experiencing poverty and social exclusion to take up the rights they are entitled to. Not knowing where to go, not being able to get there, too many formal papers to file, too many conditions to fulfil… “Sometimes it even seems that governments are creating new rights and then think about how they can avoid people using them”, is something we hear frequently from our beneficiaries.
How to take up social rights?
Let it be clear that implementing social rights is not enough. To make sure that vulnerable people can benefit from those rights, governments have to make them accessible and we as Caritas organisations have to point this out and help them in doing so.
Pro-active social work combined with an outreaching attitude seems to offer a great deal of aid for vulnerable people. Social workers often know (or can search for) what benefits and rights someone is entitled to. When a beneficiary comes in for one problem, we can also support him or her with the take up of other social rights that he or she does not know of. Without waiting for the right questions to be asked, we can see if we can do something on those areas as well.
And for people who are not able to come to us or who do not know that we exist, we have to go out and reach them. We can go where people need us the most to help them. Not only with urgent matters, such as food or shelter, but also with counselling to make sure that they know their rights and they can exercise them fully.
As Caritas organisations we have an important role to play in so many ways. Together we can make sure that the European Pillar of Social Rights is not just a waste of time and energy, but becomes the social handbook for Europe. And together we can take care of people who are not able to take up the social rights and benefits they are entitled to.
 Data on OMNIO-statuut/statut OMNIO, see: Eurofound, 2015, Access to social benefits: Reducing non-take-up.
 Interfederaal Steunpunt Armoede, Sociale Uitsluiting en Bestaansonderzekerheid, Sociale bescherming en armoede, 2013.