Europe's winter deaths reveal 'drastic policy failure'
by Gabriele Zimmer
The deaths of hundreds of people in Europe as a result of the cold weather demonstrated the need for binding targets in the fight against poverty and homelessness, writes German MEP
The extreme cold weather is not just exposing the plight of the homeless in Europe. It also reflects a drastic failure of policy with the deaths of hundreds of people across the continent.
More than 600 people have died so far during the cold snap – 80 plus deaths in Poland, about 130 in the Ukraine, hundreds in Russia, and some in Germany. Most of those who freeze to death are homeless. Many are sleeping in parks, streets, under bridges but others live in unheated homes because they cannot keep up with sky-rocketing energy prices, while their heating systems are antiquated or totally inadequate.
When people fall into poverty they often save on the heating first and foremost. Or they simply cannot pay their bills anymore, and are cut off by energy suppliers. Taking up the idea to limit private energy costs to 10 per cent of household incomes could be an effective first step.
National governments have an obligation to protect these people. Local authorities should be helped to provide warm shelter, hot food and drinks, blankets, winter clothing and heating fuel. Also a task force, including experts and organisations representing affected people, should be set up by the European Commission to deal with these emergencies. Such a body would need common indicators and universal aggregated statistics so that in future we can see the level of homelessness across Europe and the numbers of people who are exposed to the threats posed by cold weather.
This would enable us to organise the necessary emergency aid. Additionally, the Commission should examine how unused structural funds could be used or a revolving fund could be set up to promote the renovation and insulation of dwellings without burdening the tenants with the costs.
The policies of member states and the European Union have clearly failed across the board. Their refusal to put in place binding targets for the fight against poverty and homelessness, to prioritise reducing energy poverty, and to develop common effective strategies – and enforce them – is responsible for the freezing to death of hundreds of people. We need clear targets, with policies integrated into all relevant fields and based on proper research.
Social protection and social inclusion policy must have a strong housing dimension to be able to take account of changing profiles of the homeless population, in particular the impact of migration. Some member states still do not use structural funds resources set aside for social housing purposes due to ideological reasons.
Just recently, and after much wrangling, the Council of the EU finally agreed that the food aid programme for those most in need will continue in 2012 and 2013. Urgently required food can now get to the poorest of the poor – but what about 2014? Six governments, including Germany, blocked the continuation of the programme. A renewal of the programme after 2013 is, therefore, anything but sure. In a Europe where one in seven people are at risk of poverty, we ultimately need a debate on EU-wide minimum standards to fight poverty. This is all the more urgent given the incessant drive for austerity by EU leaders.
The attacks on Europe's social protection systems and public services are removing the essential safety net that help people cope with unemployment, sickness, invalidity, old age, and day-to-day expenses. They enable many people to engage in society, live a dignified life, and keep people from falling into poverty. Standing up against austerity and getting 'social Europe' on the agenda will be a key task for my group and the wider left over the coming years.
Gabriele Zimmer is a German MEP and a member of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament