Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team
The European Union and its Member States are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The European Convention on the Exercise of Children’s Rights overseen by the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Council) has, however, not been signed and ratified by all EU Member States nor by the European Union. Yet, recently the EU and its member States have adopted their own European Union Strategy on the Rights of the Child and a European Child Guarantee aimed at protecting and promoting the rights of children. It appears that the competition to become global advocates of child rights is creating a plethora of policy and strategy, but failing to address the urgent need for action.
To a large degree, it appears that children have escaped infection from the virus and fortunately most have not faced grave danger. However, children have suffered immensely from the impacts of the virus. Yet, even before the pandemic, a large percentage of children living in the European Union, a developed economy, were facing social exclusion, let down by key services and systems which are supposed to be in place to protect them. Today, almost 18 million children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU and the current crisis will only exacerbate existing inequalities.
According to the Commission, it has reached out to more than 10 000 children to make sure their views are reflected in the content of its work, challenging the perception that children are not mature enough to take decisions. The European Union Strategy on the Rights of the Child focusses on several priorities, including participation in political and democratic life, child-friendly justice, combating violence, the digital and information society and socio-economic inclusion.
Alongside the Strategy, the European Child Guarantee is a flagship initiative of the European Pillar of Social Rights which proposes deliverables to begin building a policy framework to address the social exclusion of children. The Child Guarantee obliges Member States to draft national action plans for the period up to 2030, proposing specific measures for children in need, including for homeless children, those with disabilities or a migrant or minority racial background such as Roma, and children in alternative care or in a precarious family situation. It is essential that if there is to be a paradigm shift in preventing children being socially excluded, then the communities it affects most must be included in the decision making process and construction of the framework.
To prevent and combat social exclusion of children in need, requires guaranteeing access to a set of key services, thereby also helping to uphold the rights of the child by combating child poverty and fostering equal opportunities. Member States will be asked to guarantee effective and free access to early childhood education and care, education and school-based activities, at least one healthy meal each school day and healthcare, as well as effective access to healthy nutrition and adequate housing.
Education is one of the greatest barriers which still needs to be addressed across many Member States. Segregation still exists in some EU countries despite European legislation. Identifying and addressing financial and non-financial barriers which prevent children from participation in early childhood education and care can be easily diagnosed by speaking with those communities most affected, if the political will is there. Once again, unfortunately, the Commission passes the responsibility to Member States to act. This raises genuine concerns about the seriousness with which national governments will uphold their commitment. It is well known, witnessed by those countries who have not signed all Conventions on the Right of the Child, that some governments are very resistant to the child rights discourse.
With funding already constrained by the pandemic, the situation for many marginalised communities can only get worse. Although the Commission suggests that countries will be able to tap into the European Social Fund (ESF+) and other EU financing instruments such as the Resilience and Recovery Facility and InvestEU, many will be using those funds for Covid recovery programmes – And whilst the Commission insists that at least 5% of the ESF allocation must go towards the Child Guarantee measures in cases in which poverty or social exclusion are above the EU average, without regular monitoring or ring-fencing of budgets, this is likely to be a guideline rather than an obligation.
Member States are requested to report to the Commission on their progress every two years. A similar obligation was presented in the Roma Rights Strategy and has failed miserably across the European Union. Statistical data collection and evidence based monitoring and accountability must therefore be implemented equally in all Member States, with regular audits and reporting. Two years in the life of a child can be extremely important, it cannot be wasted.
The European Child Guarantee is the first EU-level policy instrument which aims to address disadvantage and exclusion in childhood. The Commission is aware that vulnerable and disadvantaged children face an adult life of hardship when these vicious cycles are not broken. The Child Guarantee puts into practice the principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights to build a fair and inclusive social Europe, hence, this action plan has an ambitious target for 2030, of reducing, by five million, the number of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The European Child Guarantee is a foundation stone of this action plan but will only be effective if a holistic approach is adopted with political and legal instruments properly coordinated at all levels and regular cooperation, engagement and consultation undertaken with civil society, parents and children.