"We have an army of committed people in our civil society. These people deserve our appreciation and they also need the necessary political support." So said Gabi Bischoff, President of the Workers’ Group at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), on her 22 July visit to "Verein Armut und Gesundheit in Deutschland", which is dedicated to providing medical treatment to the poor and socially disadvantaged. The EESC has made combating poverty and social exclusion one of its priorities under the current presidency, in order to further social, economic and territorial cohesion in Europe. It has already drafted a number of opinions on the subject, including a proposal for a European minimum income and fairer taxation policy.
EESC Civil Society Prize honours and encourages solidarity projects
"Armut und Gesundheit in Deutschland" is the association that Ms Bischoff last year proposed for the EESC Civil Society Prize and actually took the first prize. Awarded annually and worth a total of EUR 50 000, the prize is intended to reward initiatives by civil society or private organisations that have made a significant contribution to helping other people and so actively embody EU values such as humanity and solidarity. "Our prize is especially about solidarity," said Ms Bischoff. "In 2014, the focus was on the integration of Roma, last year it was the fight against poverty, and this year we want to highlight projects which have worked to support and integrate migrants. In the end, only a Europe of solidarity and fairness will be able to master the challenges of our times."
The mobile clinic as a model for other cities
Poverty takes many forms: from unemployment and homelessness, poor or no educational opportunities and material limitations, to poor diet and health. It is the last of these – helping the poor, specifically, to return to health – that the Mainz association has made its mission. Along with his team, Prof. Gerhard Trabert, founder and director of "Armut und Gesundheit in Deutschland", drives a mobile clinic around to visit the homeless and socially disadvantaged, who can also come directly to Zitadelle 1F, where there is also a dental surgery and temporary care accommodation. But the association goes further, doing a huge amount of advising on social concerns, especially on insurance and (re-)integration in society.
Excluded even in death
Ms Bischoff heard a lot of sad stories on the day of her visit, but she also heard about the many successes the association had been able to achieve thanks to the commitment of its fifty – almost exclusively volunteer – helpers. One story made a particularly deep impression on her: a Romanian working on a building site in Germany had fallen gravely ill, only to discover that his employer had not taken out health insurance for him, despite assurances to the contrary. The urgently needed operation was delayed because no hospital was willing to accept the man. Only when Prof. Trabert's association got involved was he operated on. However, because of the delayed treatment and the complications, the man died. And there was even a sad footnote: since there was no money available, his urn had to be buried without a ceremony. "Freedom of movement for workers is one of the most important principles of the EU," commented Gabi Bischoff. "Sadly, we have to acknowledge that more and more frequently workers are hired by often unscrupulous firms under false pretences and then work as 'false self-employed', not knowing that they have no insurance cover. The EU can and must take action to put an end to this practice."
The members of the EESC, who come – among other things – from workers' and employers' organisations and agricultural and consumer organisations, are the ones who best know the problems on the ground. The EESC also organises visits under its "Going Local" scheme to civil society organisations across Europe in order to get detailed information about the barriers and problems these dedicated citizens face, to draw attention to these in its opinions and to put forward proposals to improve matters.