Autumn traditionally marks the start of the “European semester”, aimed to create synergies between the economic and social policies of EU countries. Despite a few – timid – positive measures, the proposals put forward by the European Commission fail to fully leverage the potential of an ageing population.
The Semester is the EU’s powerful cycle for coordinating social and economic policies, as well as for implementing the after-COVID Recovery and Resilience Fund. Together with our members, we have analysed the European Semester process in 2023 from a national and EU-wide point of view. Our analysis looked at in how far the recommendations made for twelve EU Member States reflect the ambition to adapt public policies to the ageing of the EU population.
A restart with high ambition and multiple crises
2023 is the first year since the COVID-19 pandemic in which Member States have received recommendations on social and employment policies. Since then, many important declarations have been made on EU level such as the adoption of Council conclusions on mainstreaming ageing and on human rights of older persons, the Action Plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights and the EU Care Strategy. With the spike of the cost of living in 2022 and 2023, another crisis with high social impact piled on the pandemic. We therefore hoped that some important social priorities such as the development of long-term care services, adequacy of pensions and minimum incomes, employment of older persons and preventive, resilient health services would be key parts of this year’s recommendations.
Some of the measures proposed are going into the right direction, such as a strong focus on life-long learning. Government measures to support people in the cost-of-living crisis were seen positively in the European Semester, however the Semester rightly pointed out that these support measures were not sufficiently targeting the most vulnerable — AGE had issued a report about how older persons were left out of many support measures.
Ageing policies are not sufficiently included
However, we argue that health and long-term care remain largely absent from the Semester policy proposals. Ageing is still largely seen from the angle of a cost, not from the angle of how increased longevity can be leveraged as an opportunity. For this, better social investments are needed and the European rules on public spending are currently not fit for this purpose.
Sustainable labour market policies need to better empower people for working longer. Next week, we will release our 2023 AGE Barometer with concrete proposals and practices on how to support longer working lives. Education and skills policies, while very much present in the Semester, fail to mention and target the fact that older workers are the ones who are the most excluded from education and training, and that life-long learning is needed beyond working age to keep up with the rapid changes of our societies.
In light of the return of inflation, we need to ensure that pension systems adequately integrate the changes needed to live in dignity in older age.
Finally, the European Semester process is not sufficiently inclusive. National civil society organisations are often not invited to the table to discuss national reforms and the needs of different groups of society they represent.
Therefore, AGE calls on the European Commission to make the 2024 cycle more inclusive, proactive and positive for the urgently needed shift towards policies for all ages. This is all the more important that 2024 is an electoral year for the EU institutions, and citizens need to feel that the EU will tackle the issues that concern them most.
Philippe Seidel Leroy
Policy Manager on Social Protection and European Parliament