The light installation you can see in the photo says “Ten years in the EU” and it commemorates the tenth anniversary of Poland joining the EU. There have been many debates on how enlargement has influenced Polish society. However, I am not certain if we have asked ourselves the question of how the situation of the poorest has changed.
For me there is no one easy answer to this. Take the EU recommendations for example. On the one hand, the EU obliges its members to develop strategies for promoting social inclusion and employment. Those strategies should then be fed into policies on the national and local level. They have indeed been reflected in two big reforms that Poland is undergoing right now – one concerning the social welfare system and another concerning employment law. The changes to the welfare system emphasize a shift towards social work as empowering people instead of distributing benefits and the law on employment is to introduce an individual approach to supporting the unemployed. What is more, they are to be carried on the local and regional level to better respond to the needs of the community.
On the other hand, in moments like these there has been pressure on the local institutions to deliver results without sufficient financial and structural support from the national government (the austerity measures introduced by the EU definitely play a role in budget cuts!). Community centres are supposed to compete for European funds and work on a project basis, which raises many questions about the stability of their functioning. There is also the pressure to fulfill goals set in Brussels which might be remote from the local community.
There has been quite a lot of European funding dedicated to improving the quality of services for people experiencing poverty and exclusion. Antipoverty organizations have organized projects, study visits and research to gain new ideas and share best practices. Surely the quality of the various projects varied, but the opportunities have been there. For example, ATD Fourth World Poland was one of the organizers of the project “Innovations 2009-2011” in which students, practitioners and clients of social work could confront their ideas and knowledge.
What about the individual perspectives of people experiencing poverty? Many of the employment re-integration programmes funded through the European Social Fund have been criticized for their rigid criteria for target groups (e.g. based on age, time of registration at the employment centre) wasteful use of resources (e.g. producing tons leaflets and brochures) and lack of individual approach. Yet, the adults I know through ATD Warsaw often speak of the EU with hope. Knowing that that there is a larger structure than just the institutions on the local level that have often let them down gives them a sense that things can change. They are willing to go to meetings in Brussels, to meet European MPs and commissioners, and to share their experiences.
This brings us to the participation mechanisms developed together with the European Institutions, such as the thematic years, annual European meetings of People Experiencing Poverty organized by the European Antipoverty Network (EAPN), and the Structured Dialogues with young people. While they give an opportunity for learning, there is also much frustration on the part of people living in poverty that there is no clear and tangible way to translate them directly into the national and local level.
And so I always hesitate about what to say when asked the question: “Is life better in Poland since joining the EU?” I think Polish people have tried to make the best of it in the way they can. There is at the same time the audacity of all those people who have used the open borders to find work when they could not find it at home and sadness about the families who have been broken apart.
Membership in the EU plays an important part in the life of our society and we should celebrate the positive things, but not in a simplistic way. On the 1st May 2014 The Polish prime minister reminded us with pride that Poland was not as affected by the crisis as other European countries. But again this is a very big generalization without mentioning all those who have been struggling even more due to the crisis.
I hope that in the next ten years we will be able to make a better use of the opportunities of the European programmes provide for people living in exclusion and improve the inadequacy of its participation mechanisms. But there is also that burning and still unanswered question of how to make the situation of the most vulnerable a core point of reference in Poland as well as in the EU.