UN rapporteur: EU recovery money should help fight poverty

BRUSSELS (AP) — A top U.N. official urged the European Union to ensure that the huge amount of money set aside for pandemic recovery will benefit the many European citizens who have been plunged into poverty by the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19.

EU member states agreed last year on a long-term coronavirus recovery fund worth 750 billion euros that should help member nations bounce back from Europe’s most brutal economic crisis since World War II.

Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, noted that large swaths of the package will be dedicated to digital projects and the green transition. He regretted the lack of quotas for social cohesion to guarantee that investments will be made to reduce poverty.

In order to receive support from the recovery fund, member states should submit their plans by the end of April. According to De Schutter, many of the drafts already presented have been “improvised.”

“The risk is that many of these plans will be ill-informed and not necessarily consistent with the expectations of people in poverty,” he said. “There is no clear methodology to assess that the investment made shall effectively reduce poverty and reduce inequality.”

De Schutter added that the crisis, with an expected 7% fall of the bloc’s GDP in 2020, should lead EU leaders to rethink their strategy to fight poverty and make it less dependent on growth.

During his two-month visit to the EU institutions, De Schutter met numerous officials but also people affected by poverty including Roma populations, migrants, children and people with disabilities.

“I have spoken with people who have experienced hunger for the first time, who have been exposed because they are homeless, and who are maltreated and abused because of poverty,” he said.

De Schutter however lauded the bloc for the measures aimed at relaxing rules on state aid to support struggling businesses and the suspension of the Stability and Growth pact that has helped European countries respond to the pandemic.

“I was impressed by the dedication of the officials with whom I met,” De Schutter said. “But goodwill is not enough. If Europe wants to lead the way toward inclusive societies, it needs a bold EU-wide anti-poverty strategy that commits to reducing poverty by 50 percent equally across Member States by 2030.”

Last year, the EU’s external auditor said that EU leaders had failed to deliver on their promise to bring at least 20 million people out of poverty by the end of 2020, compared with 2008. According to Eurostat indicators, only 7.15 million people had been lifted out of poverty by 2018.

Globally, the World Bank said in October last year that the COVID-19 pandemic was estimated to push an additional 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty in 2020, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021,

De Schutter said the pandemic has affected people in poverty more than other groups because of underlying medical conditions and the jobs that they do.

“People in poverty live in crowded dwellings with different generations interacting and … they are often manual workers who cannot telework and therefore may be contaminated in employment,” he said.

As the pandemic is expected to worsen global inequality, De Schutter urged member states to stop competing with each other by lowering taxes, wages and worker protections. He said such measures aimed at attracting investors are detrimental to the fight against poverty.

“Undermining social rights not only violates international obligations, it is bad for enterprises, workers, and public coffers alike,” he said. “Between €160-190 billion are lost each year from tax competition alone. This results in shifting the tax burden from large corporations and wealthy individuals onto workers and consumers.”

De Schutter’s final report will presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2021.

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Mark Carlson in Brussels contributed.

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