Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I am very pleased to welcome you here today to the launch conference of the Network for the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived, that I will refer to further in my speech as the "FEAD".
I am especially pleased to see that we have such a broad range of actors involved in the fight against poverty in the room today: representing grass-roots organisations that directly deploy aid to the most deprived, frontline municipal workers, EU-level NGO's and national authorities.
The FEAD is the single most visible and direct expression of the Union's core value of solidarity. Solidarity with those who are most in need: people who cannot afford basic everyday goods or services, who might be homeless, who might be desperate to feed their family, who struggle to make ends meet, and who battle to retain a dignified life.
Europe has achieved a lot in the last 70 years – most of our citizens enjoy relatively high living standards, but, that is not the case for all.
Indeed, the crisis has exacerbated existing social problems and widened disparities both between and within Member States.
It has increased inequality in our societies; thrown too many families into poverty; made it difficult for young people to realise their potential on the job market; and put our social protection systems under severe strain.
This reinforces our conviction to pursue the ambitious goals set by 2020, including a significant reduction of people living in poverty.
This Commission wants to earn a 'Social Triple A' for Europe. That means giving the social aspects of our policies as much importance as the economic ones and putting people back at the heart of those policies.
It is my conviction that the European Union is first and foremost about people. It is important that they see it working for them - creating quality job opportunities and promoting fairness. In fact this essential consideration is at the core of the social market economy concept enshrined in Article 3 of the Treaty on the European Union.
With our recent outline of a European Pillar for Social Rights, we are proposing a compass for upward social convergence. It is underpinned by principles on equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and adequate social protection. We are in broad consultation on how that will look and I expect many of you here to be a part of that debate.
Another area in which the Commission is increasingly addressing the social aspect is the area of funding, with a view to meeting the social objectives of Europe 2020, in particular inclusive growth.
For the European Social Fund, the introduction of a minimum share for social inclusion has led Member States to earmark more than 25% of the their allocation to inclusion of disadvantaged people, the integration of marginal communities, and the promotion of social enterprises.
Through the creation of FEAD in 2014, the EU has provided an instrument that directly aims to break the vicious circle of poverty and deprivation. It does so by providing non-financial assistance to some of our most vulnerable citizens.
All Member States have put in place their programmes for rolling out the kind of support that is most needed. Already in its first year, over 200,000 tonnes of food were distributed.
Material assistance is provided as well: Basic hygiene items, clothing or sleeping bags as well as school supplies for children from deprived households are made available in many regions and cities.
But the FEAD goes beyond this valuable basic support. It aims at empowering people in need take steps out of poverty. What we call "accompanying measures" is the recognition that every person should get a chance of progressing and leaving a seemingly desperate situation behind.
Through the FEAD, a variety of accompanying measures is offered together with food distribution. In some cases these involve the provision of advice on food preparation and storage, personal cleanliness requirements or redirection to competent social services.
In Slovenia for instance, individual coaching and workshops are organised. Accompanying measures in Poland take the form of psychological and therapeutic support, cooking workshops, as well as educational activities to promote healthy nutrition, tackle food waste, and how to properly manage one's household budget.
And of course we do have countries that built their entire operational programmes around the concept of social inclusion. Here, FEAD-funded measures take the form of training for improved self-reliance, a healthier and more active lifestyle, improved skills, orientation activities and information about rights and obligations, or language training to name just a few examples.
We are conscious that the scope and the budget of FEAD are not sufficient to eliminate poverty in the EU. That is why it is of utmost importance that FEAD interventions are coordinated efficiently and effectively with ESF operations and other European and national schemes.
In this way, it will be possible for Member States to design pathways out of poverty, which go beyond the temporary relief of the most basic needs and can make a lasting difference in the situation of the most deprived.
Let me also recognise the important role that social enterprises play in this field. In Europe there is a growing number of businesses, which strive for social benefits.
Many of these provide gateways out of poverty and back to labour markets for people who - for various reasons - have previously been side-lined. It is heartening to see that entrepreneurship and business opportunities are mobilised to provide responses to today's burning social challenges, such as poverty.
Using business opportunities is not only about helping people in vulnerable positions as customers, it is also, here again, about empowerment: it is about businesses set up and run by people in vulnerable positions.
This is why the European Union, in its European programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI), supports business creation and growth with specific measures for both social enterprises and for micro-finance.
We help social enterprises to get better access to finance and we help micro-finance providers to reach out to people who want to take the first step towards their own business, but who cannot get the funding from traditional sources.
Overall, we have a budget of nearly 200 million euro for this over 7 years and we are looking for opportunities to top it up, because the demand clearly exceeds the resources.
This is also why the European Fund for Strategic Investment established one year ago, includes a specific priority for the development of human capital, in particular through the social and solidarity economy.
I know that many social actors are simply not aware of those funding opportunities. I have also noted that the complexity of rules and processes to get access to these funds might represent a real obstacle for candidates or existing social entrepreneurs.
Therefore, I have asked my services to develop with the European Investment Bank and other partners, an awareness raising campaign and an assistance package for social entrepreneurs and services of general interest providers.
Last, but not least, I would like to underline the importance of FEAD as a potential tool for addressing the refugee crisis. Member States can choose to include refugees and asylum seekers in the target groups that are eligible to receive assistance, both in the early stages after their arrival in the Union, and later. The Commission is actively supporting the Member States who choose this approach.
In this context, I would like to underline a specific impact that we expect to achieve through the work of the FEAD Network. Partner organisations will develop adequate knowledge, increase their capacity and experience and skills for delivery. In other words, they will become more performant and provide guarantee as to the social impact of their actions.
In turn, this can increase the confidence of potential donors for food and other material assistance in the capacity of your organisations to deliver effectively on our common poverty reduction goal.
Ladies and Gentlemen, You know that we are already approaching the mid-term of this financial period and you will not be surprised to hear that the Commission is already starting to think about what will come after 2020.
We all know that poverty will still be an issue that has to be addressed in Europe. We can also expect that we will not have more resources for this. So while committees start debating future funding priorities, stakeholders from all levels provide opinions, and consultations are carried out, we are especially interested to learn what works well in FEAD – and what doesn't.
The mid-term evaluation of the FEAD's operation, to be presented by the Commission in 2018, will provide input for the debates. But the discussion and the feedback that emerge within the FEAD Network that we launch today will also be a valuable indicator for us.
One of my personal priorities is to make sure we carry on with our efforts of simplification of funding programmes. Our goal must be to ensure that Europe's citizens reap the full benefits of our investments. We must dismantle unnecessary barriers to the spending of these valuable Funds – in other words, we must focus on results, not red-tape.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me warmly thank you. The European Union has put FEAD in place; but it is the organisations you represent who make it a reality. I wish you a successful conference and hope that it will give you inspiration and the opportunity to learn from each other.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude towards the thousands of volunteers whose work in local NGOs across Europe makes a real difference in the life of millions of citizens in need.