National Recovery and Resilience Plans: social investment on the rise, but much still to be improved

The Recovery and Resilience Facility has increased the capacity for social investment in the EU. However, National Recovery and Resilience Plans, funded by the facility, are still plagued by shortcomings such as uneven investing in social programmes in different Member States, insufficient consultation with social partners and a gender dimension that is too weak

The social dimension in the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) was the theme of a conference organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels on 8 November.

One of the main objectives of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), the EU's biggest financial instrument, which has been funding the NRRPs since 2021, is to promote social and territorial cohesion and mitigate the social impact of the crisis triggered by the pandemic. The reforms and investments supported by the NRRPs should be in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPRS), but are affected by the EU's shortcomings in this area.

Looking into the contribution of the RRF to social cohesion and to the implementation of the EPRS, is an absolute must nowadays. We are living at a time when citizens' primary concern is the high cost of living, people expect support from the EU and put much hope in the EUR 800 billion EU recovery plan -  NextGenerationEU, said EESC President Oliver Röpke during the conference's keynote session on Promoting social cohesion through the NRRPs.  

Mr Röpke called for consideration of new measures to reduce imbalances in EU-funded social programmes, such as in housing, training and education, where vulnerable groups, although most in need of training and up-skilling, are least likely to benefit from these opportunities. It is the better qualified who have better access to even higher qualifications.

Spiros Protopsaltis, First Vice-President of the European Network of Public Employment Services, stressed that social cohesion could only be strengthened under the NRRPs by means of well-designed much-needed large-scale upskilling programmes.

Evelyn Regner, Vice-President of the European Parliament, drew attention to the uneven level of the social dimension in the NRRPs across the EU.

The milestones mechanism in the NRRPs works well in those EU countries where the social partners [are] strongly involved in the preparation of these programmes. In the social dimension, the milestones are weaker in those EU countries where there has been no proper dialogue with the social partners, stressed Regner.

Nicolas Schmit, EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, called for unallocated RRF funds to be considered for investment in housing. We can already conclude that the RRF has increased the capacity for social investment in the EU. But in general, Member States have a housing problem. Investing in affordable housing is an issue we need to address, Schmit argued.

The European Commission was asking EU countries to implement reforms and investments supported by the NRRPs that contribute to improving social and territorial infrastructure and services, including social protection and welfare systems and the inclusion of disadvantaged groups, supporting employment and skills development and leading to the creation of quality and stable jobs.

It had calculated that social spending in the adopted initial plans represented around 30% of the total financial envelope.

However, there are no quantitative thresholds for spending on social issues, as there are for measures to meet climate and environmental targets and digital targets, stressed Carlos Trindade, President of the EESC's Labour Market Observatory.

In the conference session on Advancing the social objectives of the NRRPs through the European Semester, Luca Jahier, President of the EESC's European Semester Group, highlighted the importance of establishing more effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, which the EESC had noted in its opinion adopted in September 2023. This would allow the real effectiveness of the NRRPs to be assessed.

Participants in the session on The gender dimension in NRRPs complained that this aspect was not properly addressed in these funds, perhaps in part due to the rush to create the Recovery and Resilience Facility in response to the pandemics.

The gender provisions of the RRF fall short of the EU's legal and political commitments to gender equality. The facility is not in line with the EU's dual approach to gender equality and does not follow the EU's gender equality strategy, argued Irene Rioboo of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

During the debate it was pointed out that some projects under way in Member States could improve gender equality in the long term.

Speaking in the session on The youth dimension in NRRPs - a focus on employment measures, Dragoş Pîslaru, Chair of the European Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee (EMPL), pointed out that hard investments in infrastructure should be accompanied by thinking about soft investments.

When we invest in building kindergartens, schools and youth centres, we should think about what educational, health and psychological services they will provide in a multiannual perspective, said Pîslaru.

Ivailo Kalfin, Executive Director of Eurofound, pointed to the disproportionate emphasis on educational measures in NRRPs programmes aimed at young people: We need more measures to facilitate the transition between education and the workplace. Training, soft skills training, late internships as a way for young people to make a successful transition between the education system and the labour market are still very much lacking across Europe.

Participants in the debate pointed to the lack of consultation with youth representatives on programmes tailored to them in the NRRPs.

Closing the conference, Mr Röpke called for more opportunities to be given to young people to voice their opinions on decisions that impact them now and in the future.