Despite welcoming the proposal for the new European Social Fund Plus due to its potential ability to promote social inclusion, the EESC criticises the fact that it will receive less funding under the new long-term EU budget
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is highly critical of the proposed cuts to EU cohesion policy under the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), one of which results in a 6% reduction in funding for the new European Social Fund Plus which aims to strengthen the EU’s social dimension.
Commenting on the European Commission’s proposal for the ESF+ under the MFF 2021-2027, the EESC said that it was opposed to the elimination of the mandatory minimum share of funds earmarked for the ESF+ in the next cohesion policy budget. This share is currently set at 23.1%. It also did not agree with the proposal to reduce the Fund’s European co-funding rate.
The EESC gave its views on the proposal in an opinion drawn up at the Commission’s request and presented at the EESC’s plenary session in October.
“With the proposed cuts, the ESF should in fact be called ESF Minus instead of ESF plus,” said the rapporteur for the opinion, Krzysztof Balon. "The 6% cut in ESF+ funding is unacceptable given the persistently high rate of poverty in the EU - over 23%."
The co-rapporteur, Cinzia del Rio, warned about the timing discrepancy between the MFF and the European Semester. "The risks of rigorously non-social conditions for accessing the funds must be addressed in consultation with all parties," she maintained.
According to the EESC, the EU should have a budget that is able to respond to major challenges such as youth unemployment, long-term unemployment, the level of poverty in the EU and a fast-changing labour market.
Arguing that the ESF+ was the main funding instrument for implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights, the EESC called for 30% of resources for economic, social and territorial cohesion policies to be allocated to the ESF+ and recommended that 30% of ESF+ resources be earmarked for social inclusion measures.
Under the Commission proposal, the share of national ESF+ resources allocated to promoting social inclusion and tackling poverty would amount to at least 25%, with another 2% of Member States' resources to be spent on measures targeting the most deprived.
Strengths of the Commission proposal
However, despite criticising some aspects of the Commission proposal and objecting to the decrease in funding, the Committee welcomed it and called for a "swift, responsible and balanced decision on it before the EP elections next year".
According to the opinion, the EESC was particularly pleased with the proposal's alignment with the European Pillar of Social Rights, its guidelines for quality outcomes through improved indicators and the fact that it merged individual funds and programmes in order to bolster the fight against poverty, social exclusion, unemployment and underemployment in the EU.
The role of civil society organisations and the social partners must not be overlooked
The EESC asked the Commission to further simplify ESF+ rules for both managing authorities and beneficiaries, while ensuring that they comply with EU values. Furthermore, public authorities should facilitate access by the social partners and civil society organisations to the resources available under the ESF+, an adequate proportion of which should be earmarked for projects spearheaded by small local organisations.
“Access by non-profit organisations to the ESF+ also has to be improved, enabling them to compete on an equal footing with for-profit ones,” said Mr Balon.
"The social partners and other civil society organisations are crucial players in the European democratic project," said the EESC in the opinion. "The EU should make full use of their experience and capacity in programming, implementing, monitoring and evaluating EU funding."
The EESC said that it would like capacity-building for civil society organisations, the social partners and public bodies to be included among the priorities to receive a high level of funding under the ESF+.
Other areas suggested by the EESC are high quality youth employment, gender equality initiatives, inclusion and employment of vulnerable groups, strengthening public services of general interest that contribute to better quality of life and to a better work-life balance, as well as lifelong learning and upskilling in the context of a rapidly evolving labour market in the era of digitalisation and AI.
Under the new MFF, proposed by the Commission in the spring of this year, the ESF+ will merge several funds and programmes from the current funding period, such as the ESF and the Youth Employment Initiative, the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), the Employment and Social Innovation programme and the Health Programme.
The ESF+ will have a total budget of EUR 101 billion, EUR 100 billion of which will go to ex-ESF and ex-FEAD. The remaining 1.2 billion will be spent on employment and social innovation and health. Around 10% of funding will target young people aged 15-29.