The European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat is sceptical of the promises being made by European politicians to reduce the level of poverty in their countries to 20 million people by 2020. At present, this figure stands at 120 million people. Eurostat experts maintain that reducing this amount by six times over the next seven years, especially amid the continuing financial and economic crisis, is extremely problematic. Or to put it more precisely – inconceivable.
A Eurostat press release states that without an adequate policy that could completely alter trends in the current fight against poverty, Europe will achieve nothing. When presenting the experts’ report to the public, the head of Eurostat, Walter Radermacher, chose to avoid answering the question, is the European Union capable of defeating poverty at all?
In the European Union, it is generally accepted that the biggest threat to the well-being of Europeans is what is referred to as monetary poverty, which covers almost 84 million people. The monetary poverty indicator reflects the number of citizens whose real earnings are less than 60 percent of the national average. In Europe it is believed that this level of poverty ensures physiological survival.
According to the German statistical office DESTATIS, for example, 15.8 percent of Germans were living below the poverty line in 2011, which in Germany is equal to 60 percent of the average income, or 940 euro per month. Someone living in Ukraine or Belarus would probably say, «Good grief, if only we could have such poverty!» They would say it… but they would be wrong, since prices in Germany are incomparably higher than in CIS countries. At the beginning of November, for example, a litre of 95 petrol cost 1.51 euro in Germany, bread cost between 1 and 5 euro, and a kilogramme of beef tenderloin cost between 18 and 25 euro.
As well as monetary poverty there is also material deprivation, which primarily manifests itself in unsatisfactory living conditions and a lack of good-quality food. 43 million people in the European Union are suffering as a result of material deprivation.
In addition, nearly 39 million are recognised as «socially marginalised». This group includes members of households in which the intensity of labour is less than 20 percent of what is potentially possible. Almost 14 million of these are not exposed to either monetary poverty or material deprivation, but official statistics count them as «poor». That is probably justified, however, since a sense of one’s own irrelevance is sometimes more traumatising than material difficulties.
* * *
With the increase in the scale of poverty in Europe, the problem of food that is more or less decent is becoming increasingly important. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently published a report suggesting that millions of Europeans cannot afford to feed themselves and are being forced to ask for charitable donations.
The Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Yves Daccord, says that there has not been such a large-scale operation to provide food aid in Europe since the Second World War. According to Daccord, Europe is currently facing its «worst humanitarian crisis in six decades».
Statistics indicate that in 22 European countries between 2009 and 2012, the number of people asking for charitable donations grew from 2 million to 3.5 million (by 75 percent). Even in relatively affluent Germany, there are 600,000 people who would not be able to manage without food aid or free meals.
People sometimes have to choose between paying for housing and paying for food, like in France. Under threat of eviction, three quarters of the French population living in need chose to ask for free soup and keep the roof over their heads.
Nobody is talking about a mass famine in relatively prosperous Germany, Benelux, Scandinavia and France, of course. But there is an alarming situation developing in southern Europe, however. The most serious situations are in Spain, Greece and Italy, as well as the poorest EU member countries such as Romania, for example.
The number of people living in absolute poverty in Spain has doubled since 2008 and now stands at 3 million people. Italy was also faced with an extremely serious situation when, as a result of the financial and economic crisis, more than 100,000 small- and medium-sized enterprises closed, resulting in a jump in unemployment and an increase in the impoverishment of the population.
Two thirds of the Red Cross branches in EU countries are now having to hand out food to Europeans in need. Red Cross staff are being kept particularly busy in Spain. In 2012, the Red Cross handed out more than 33,000 tons of food aid to hungry Spaniards, where 3 million people in the country asked for help. Furthermore, in a number of cases the Red Cross also helped to pay for electricity, water and housing. More than 20,000 Spanish families received financial aid.
Every 7th Romanian – more than 3 million people – is living in poverty. The relative level of poverty in Romania has grown in recent years to 40 percent. This is already the fourth year that the Romanian Red Cross has been distributing food aid. In 2012, food aid was given to more than 80,000 families.
* * *
At the end of April this year, The New York Times published a report from Greece which told the story of Leonidas Nikos, the principal of an elementary school. He says that children no longer play during their breaks, but spend whole days hanging around the school and even spend their breaks rummaging around in rubbish bins in search of food. The school is in Piraeus, a working-class suburb of Athens. The children’s parents often admit that they have been unable to find work for many months. All their savings have gone and the only food they have is a limited amount of pasta and ketchup.
Then there is the situation in Poland, where 2.5 million people live below the minimum subsistence level. Every 3rd child in Poland knows firsthand what poverty is, and every 10th child in the country is underfed. For 70,000 children, meanwhile, lunch in the school canteen will be their only meal of the day, reported Dzennik – Gazeta pravna in March of this year.
«Nearly 8 percent of children do not eat breakfast in the morning and do not take food to school with them», the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita wrote at the end of February. «The most undernourished children are those between the ages of 6 and 12». This could mean that a total of 800,000 children throughout the country are going without food, according to the report The Hunger and Undernourishment of Children in Poland, prepared by the Research House Maison.
More than 14 percent of the population in Poland is unemployed. Incidentally, unemployment in the EU reached a record 12.2 percent in September, covering 19.5 million people. Youth unemployment, meanwhile, is at a staggering 23%. It is interesting that these figures are better in Ukraine – 8 percent and 19 percent respectively.
A clear correlation can be seen between the level of unemployment and the problems being experienced by children. In Spain, unemployment stands at 21 percent, while 25 percent of children are undernourished. Spain, Italy and Greece are the most typical examples in this regard. School leavers and even university graduates are preferring to live with their parents. If there is no work, where are they going to go?
The financial catastrophe in Greece has completely destroyed the «European» consumer conscience of the middle class. First their wages were cut and their job security was taken away, then they began to be dismissed without any redundancy pay. The vast majority of children (55 percent) in Greek families like these are also unemployed. Families fall into poverty then fall apart. School attendance falls while unemployment prospects disappear, and the ghost of lifelong unemployment becomes increasingly apparent. Many young people have still not found work by the age of 30. No work means no opportunity to start a family, to have children. The informal solidarity of random street groups is coming more and more to the fore, and the sons of the poor are siding with the anarchists. By no means all of these are responding with the Neo-Nazi slogans of the Golden Dawn party, but they are getting ready to fight against the influx of immigrants, especially Balkan and Middle Eastern drug dealers and pimps.
* * *
These are just some of the features of a united Europe’s social fabric, but they are not mentioned that often in the dressed-up reports of EU leaders. In Brussels, they are hoping that their forced entry into the markets of the Eastern Partnership’s post-Soviet countries (primarily Ukraine), through the creation of free trade zones with these countries and a restriction of their economic sovereignty, will enable Europeans if not to save their worsening situation, then at least to postpone the social misfortunes drawing nearer the countries of the European Union…