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Michał Karski: What are your impressions after the Annual General Meeting of Eurodiaconia (AGM) in Wrocław?
Heather Roy: I am left with two main impressions from the AGM in Wrocław. Firstly, I am once again impressed by the dynamism and commitment of our members. Our members come together not to debate organisational issues or speak about problems with money or governance but to talk about how to ensure that the most vulnerable in our societies are not forgotten or devalued. I heard reports of new projects and services, new ways to support those who experience poverty and social exclusion, to speak and advocate for their own needs and engagement with decision makers that is based on experience and fact.
Secondly, I saw how strong Diaconia Poland is! The organisation of the AGM was first class but also the breadth of work from the organisation and the commitment to ensuring high quality and accessible services was clear. It was also positive to see the strong relationship with local authorities and the support given to Diaconia Poland as a result.
What was most interesting for you during this AGM?
What is always interesting to me is listening to members stories, reports and accounts of their work. There is so much happening all over Europe and I am sure we do not know even half of it. It is important that we share our stories of our work because our work is not just about providing a service but is part of the story of how God works in this world today. Diaconia is a underpinned by our Christian motivation to serve and love our neighbours as much as we love God. As I listen to our members I am reminded that wherever we go, whatever we do, God is there with us.
Why did Eurodiaconia choose for AGM topic “The future of social Europe?”?
Right now is a crucial time for Europe. The adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights and a growing realisation that financial austerity has had a devastating impact on social wellbeing has led the institutions of the European Union to be more sensitive to the social needs of people in Europe. But, there is not a clear way forward where the economic paradigm we currently have is adapted to put people rather than markets first. Until this happens, so called Social Europe will not be achieved and much of the work done, and policies developed, will be like putting a sticking plaster over a wound. Our Supervisory Board wanted to explore how we could go beyond binding wounds (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said) and addressing the root causes of exclusion and inequality. This is why they chose the theme of Social Europe. What is the future? Will it be a Europe that addresses the social imbalances between member states? Will we have a Europe that is characterised by solidarity? Can we introduce the alternative power of love to replace the power and love of money?
As one of the key speakers at AGM professor Piotr Błędowski said, the future of social Europe is rather pessimistic. Does Eurodiaconia have any tools to influence the EU to make Europe more social?
I think our greatest ‘tool’ is our members. It is our members who have the experience of the reality of social wellbeing all over Europe. It is our members who can see what works or what does not work when it comes to policies. We, in the Eurodiaconia secretariat and the Board can then take that experience and present it to the decision makers at EU level. Because of the legitimacy of our policy work due to its clear rooting in experience, we are listened to and we can influence policy.
What are real possibilities of Eurodiaconia and its member organizations to make Europe more social?
I think continuing to show the impact of decision, proposing new types of services and policies that address emerging social situations and speaking out as advocates are all ways we can make Europe more social. Let me give one example. The European Pillar of Social Rights is possibly the most ambition piece of social policy adopted in the European Union for many many years if not ever. Eurodiaconia and our members, as well as other partners, were at the heart of the debate on what the social rights available to all resident in Europe should be. We were able to ensure that rights to services were included, housing assistance, minimum income, addressing child poverty and support to enter the labour market were all included. We actually only missed one issue and that was the integration of social and health care services – so we are still working on that one! But it shows that we do have influence on the policy level. However, policy is just that, a policy. What it needs is putting into practice which generally happens at the national/regional level in each Member State. That is where we need to be working with our members to turn policy into practice – and if we can do that, we should eventually have a much more social Europe. With the EPSR we need to see policy, legislation and funding to make it work. The future EU budget (the Multiannual Financial Framework) needs to ensure that the rights of the EPSR are prioritised for funding through instruments such as the European Social Fund+ or Erasmus+.
What are most important things in the networking of Eurodiaconia and its member organizations?
Most important is providing the opportunities to meet and exchange. We learn so much from each other and can motivate each other even when the future looks bleak. We also see an increasing ‘transnationalisation’ of many social issues such as migration, in-work poverty and access to services. We need to be working together, not in isolation to deal with the transnational dimension of Social Europe and I see our members becoming more and more engaged in that way.