The UK’s concern about levels of poverty and social exclusion in recent years is not unique. The Lisbon Summit of the European Council (23-24 March 2000) placed poverty and social exclusion at centre stage for EU countries, asking member states to take steps to “make a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty” (Lisbon Summit Conclusions, para 32). Countries have had to publish National Action Plans for Social Inclusion and a set of target indicators are now published: for the first time, Europe has a scorecard for poverty, inequality and exclusion alongside those for inflation and interest rates.
Prior to this, several member states had already begun to increase the priority given to tackling deprivation. In many cases this was triggered by the election of a left-of-centre government: by 1999, 11 of the 15 EU countries had such a government in power, all of them elected after 19931. For instance, the Netherlands has had an anti-poverty policy since 1996, which has included active labour market policies alongside measures to raise the incomes of the poorest. In Ireland, the National Anti-Poverty Stategy (NAPS) was adopted in 1997, leading to targets for persistent poverty and unemployment, and the introduction of the practice of ‘poverty-proofing’ all government policy from 1998. In France, a ‘law against exclusion’ was passed in 1998, followed by a series of initiatives including the 1999 Law on Universal Health Insurance Coverage, while Portugal introduced a guaranteed minimum income for the first time in 1996. The Social-Democrat/Liberal coalition elected in Belgium in 1999 was an important force behind the establishment of common European social indicators, having made this a major priority for the Belgian presidency of the EU in 2001.
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