Gütersloh, February 21, 2017. Many European Union member states are failing to overcome the most urgent socio-political challenges. According to expert opinion, there is a large gap between the reforms required and those actually implemented, particularly when it comes to the education sector and the integration of foreigners. These are the main results from the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s EU Reform Barometer. This study was based on a Europe-wide survey of experts, in which over 1,000 social scientists took part. Socio-political reforms taking place between mid-2014 and the beginning of 2016 were analysed from five different angles: poverty, education, the labour market, social solidarity and non-discrimination, and health. In the opinion of the social scientists consulted, there is currently a considerable need for reform in all five of these areas. However, on average, the EU member states have only tackled just under 50 per cent of the reform deemed as being necessary EU-wide. The largest gaps are seen as being in education, where only a third of the reforms required have been addressed. The lowest levels of action on education policy reform were found in Greece, Lithuania and Spain. By contrast, while the United Kingdom has displayed an above-average level of activity, in some cases this has led to negative social consequences. Experts cite increases to student fees, which have been drastic in some cases, as an example. The expert view is that Malta has performed best on education policy reform. They gave positive evaluations for a programme for school students who drop out, free childcare and the launch of evening and online courses for students who need flexibility, among other things.
Shortcomings in terms of support for lifelong learning
When comparisons are made on lifelong learning across Europe, it becomes clear that the level of reform is particularly low. In ten countries, experts found no reforms of any kind taking place to try to improve financial or human resources for lifelong learning. Furthermore, the social scientists see considerable need for reform in many countries with regard to the significant role that social background plays in educational attainment. The experts stated that six countries were not taking action at all on this issue: Croatia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia and Spain.
"The lack of educational reforms in many countries provides a real cause for concern," said Aart De Geus, CEO of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. “The EU member states should do everything in their power to promote the permeability of the education systems and lifelong learning. Otherwise, the next generation will be born into the poverty trap and social inequalities will be reinforced."
Failures in the integration of foreigners as well
When it comes to the integration of foreigners, researchers have also given members states poor marks. The most pressing problem is the fight against poverty. The experts reported that in 15 EU member states, there are no significant measures in place to combat poverty among foreigners.
The refugee crisis has heightened the need for reform even further across a range of member states. This is particularly true for the EU 15 – countries which were already members before the eastward expansion of 2004. Experts consider that there is a great need for action in those countries, while need in the accession countries is deemed rather low. In most of the countries concerned, such as Denmark, Spain and Austria, there was either very little reform or reforms undertaken were actually having a negative effect. For example, the Danish government has halved social support for asylum seekers. By contrast, Italy received a positive evaluation from the experts – for the integration of foreigners in general and refugees in particular. According to researchers, legislators have improved the registration process for asylum seekers there. In addition to this, refugees are granted a residence permit for six months and are allowed to work after just two months.
Overall, a broad range of reform efforts are being made in the EU in a bid to increase social inclusion. While the experts consider that the new member states such as Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania have taken considerable steps to open up, crisis-hit member states such as Greece and Spain are doing significantly worse. Bringing up the rear for this evaluation is the United Kingdom.
The Reform Barometer has been developed by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in cooperation with Bernd Marin of the European Bureau for Policy Consulting and Social Research, Vienna, and Christian Keuschnigg at the University of St. Gallen. It is part of the Bertelsmann Stiftung's "Social Inclusion Monitor (SIM) Europe" project, which regularly carries out research into and evaluations of opportunities for social participation and reform policies in the 28 member states of the European Union. As many as 1,058 social scientists from all over Europe took part in the Reform Barometer expert survey. The online survey took place in the spring of 2016 and covered the period from July 2014 to January 2016. The results enable reform policy to be compared both across topic areas and countries.