Mary Anne MacLeod, Research Officer at the Poverty Alliance, reflects on a recent conference in Brussels to launch the network for the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived. The conference took place before the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU….
“The European Union is first and foremost about people” stated EU Commissioner Marianne Thyssen as she opened the conference for the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived in Brussels on 2nd and 3rd of June. Visions of a ‘social Europe’ or the role of the EU in tackling poverty failed to get much attention in a referendum debate dominated by arguments over immigration and the economy. As we come to terms with the aftermath of the vote, the chaos and emotions of an impending British exit from the EU, I reflect here on my experiences at an event which brought together organisations supporting some of Europe’s most deprived and marginalised citizens.
The conference marked the launch of a network for organisations across EU member states which receive monies from the Fund for European Aid for the Most Deprived (FEAD). To offer some background to the fund, FEAD was set up following demand for continued funding for food assistance when the EU Food Distribution programme for the Most Deprived Persons (MDP) came to an end in 2013. Established in 1987 and part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the MDP was designed as an economic rather than a social intervention, intended to make use of food surpluses (the ‘food mountains’ of the 70s and 80s) without distorting markets. Reforms to CAP and rising food prices in the early 2000s meant the redistribution of surplus food, from an economic and agricultural perspective, were no longer required and MDP was stopped. However, under pressure to continue to address the social demand for food aid, the EC has committed 3.8 billion euros to this new programme – FEAD – for the six year period 2014 – 2020.
FEAD provides funding in three different areas: food assistance; basic material aid (such as toiletries); and social inclusion activities. Different member states are able to choose the types of activities they want to fund. A map shows where different types of services are being funded. It appears that countries such as Sweden and Denmark which have traditionally strong social security systems tend to use FEAD to fund non-material assistance and activities aimed at reducing social exclusion. For example, in Denmark the fund is used to focus on the social inclusion of the most marginalised and homeless, those with very sporadic or no contact with social services. In countries where statutory support is often much less established, such as in Italy which has no minimum income scheme, FEAD monies are used to provide food and other essential items to people directly. Italy receives the largest proportion of FEAD (670 million euros), 60 per cent of which is used to provide free food, and which also funds provision of school materials for deprived children. The UK Government, which received widespread criticism for choosing not to use FEAD to fund food banks, has drawn down only 3.9 million euros from FEAD which is intended to fund breakfast clubs in deprived areas – although it appears that this funding is yet to be allocated. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland chose not to participate due to the small sums involved and the administrative effort required.
While the conference largely focused on discussing the practical delivery of FEAD funding, several speakers made the point of highlighting the limitations of the programme as a tool for tackling poverty. One in four of the EU population is at risk of poverty, and nine per cent experience severe material deprivation. The total FEAD budget, as noted by one panel member, is the equivalent of one euro cent per day per EU citizen living in poverty, for the six years which the programme runs. It is therefore important to be realistic about what the fund can achieve. Professor Jan Vranken from the University of Antwerp emphasised that FEAD alone is not in a position to reduce poverty and in his presentation focused on the importance of effective economic, labour market, education and housing policies, and of a robust social security systems as protection against poverty.
In my research on food poverty and food bank use in Scotland I am concerned about the impacts of stigma and shame – the importance of choice and control over food access and consumption for individual identify and agency. Such issues were not tackled directly by the conference but I noted a couple of comments made by delegates during discussions which point to frustrations of limiting anti-poverty work to handing out food: “If I go to Estonian citizens, they don’t say – ‘I am so happy I receive food aid’ – we should dream bigger” (Estonian delegate); “finding money for food [aid] is easy, but it’s not what people want – they want to live” (Italian delegate).
The main aim of the conference was to facilitate networking – sharing good practice and identifying common challenges been organisations delivering FEAD funded activity in different countries. Having coordinated networking events on food poverty and food aid in Scotland, I know how valuable it is to have opportunities to exchange ideas with those working in other contexts and I was impressed and inspired by the discussions between frontline workers from across Europe. A sense of common purpose and of solidarity is essential for addressing poverty. My hope for this network is that it is able to become more than an exchange of practical advice on the delivery of services which, while important, can only ameliorate the worse symptoms of poverty. I hope that through building relationships with each other, anti-poverty workers across Europe are able to grow in solidarity and help identify and call for the kinds of social and economic policy solutions required to tackle the structural drivers of poverty – working towards achieving that vision of a social Europe which does indeed put people first. It is vital that post-Brexit, anti-poverty campaigners in the UK remain part of that work and are able to continue to show solidarity with colleagues across Europe in the fight against poverty.
The Europe Anti-Poverty Network is organising a post referendum discussion seminar on the 8 July in London. For more information and to register click here