60 years ago, Europe agreed to an ever closer union by establishing a common market where people, goods, services and capital can move freely. Since then, we have created common legislation, learning from each other to build stronger societies and tackle new challenges. Today we question it all.
For many, young and not so young, it is unimaginable that the values of the European Union should be openly questioned by our leaders. Yet the past year has brought too many such occasions, showing that, regrettably, the European values of solidarity and equality have not bedded down in society. Brexit is a clear example.
Imagined firstly as a coal and steel community, we cannot underestimate the EU’s progress in the area of human rights and social development. From the formalisation of children’s rights under EU laws, to the provision of services that have directly improved children’s lives, children in Europe are in a better place, thanks to collective work of the different institutions and people that make up the European Union.
As civil society actors, we often focus on the limitations and the work not yet done to progress the rights of children. On this occasion, we must also celebrate the achievements of the collective, transnational power of the EU. As the UK prepares to move away from this Union, we explicitly hope that it does not break away from its shared commitments in the area of children’s rights.
Here are a few concrete ways in which the EU has been good for children.
- Children’s rights have been formally embedded in the EU Constitution thanks to the Lisbon Treaty (2009) and the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, acknowledging children as independent and autonomous rights-holders. The rights of the child are among the key priorities of the Fundamental Rights Agency, the EU’s watchdog and advisor on anti-discrimination and fundamental rights.
- Children’s rights influence more and more policies. In parallel to the EU’s ambitious work on children’s rights globally, the European Commission developed a vision to realise children’s rights within its territory – The Strategy on the Rights of the Child (2006), followed by The Agenda for the Rights of the Child (2011).
- A dedicated coordinator ensures that the children’s rights perspective is mainstreamed throughout the work of the European Commission alongside a directorate that administers funds to civil society actors engaged in work involving children throughout Europe.
- Child protection is legislated under EU law. Following the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, a number of EU legal instruments have articulated common minimum standards in child protection, including in the areas of asylum and immigration, combatting trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation. Children’s rights are better protected within the justice system because of common, agreed principles, activities and funding in this area.
- Ending child poverty is a priority for the EU. While a legal obligation and specific targets to end child poverty in the EU are lacking, the 2013 Recommendation on Investing in Children offers member states guidance to tackle child poverty in the most comprehensive manner. It looks at financial aspects of poverty, equal access to quality services, and the value of children’s participation in decision-making.
- Free movement across the EU has become part of student life. Thanks to the Erasmus programme (established in 1987) generations have grown up with an opportunity to study, train, volunteer or gain professional experience abroad.
- There is a growing tendency to promote childcare as equally important for gender equality and children’s development. The EU has supported the member states to agree on a common set of targets on childcare placements for at least 90% of children aged between three and compulsory school age, and for at least 33% of children under age three (the so-called ‘Barcelona targets’); the quality of early childhood education and care has also been emphasised in recommendations to member states.
- The use of EU funds has contributed to better quality care for children separated from families. In Bulgaria for instance, €100 million of EU funds were invested to support de-institutionalisation reforms for children. These funds resulted in the closure of eight out of 31 infant homes and the closure of all 25 institutions for children with disabilities during 2010-2015.
- The EU is helping create a safer online environment for children. Raising awareness of opportunities and (data protection and privacy) risks of the internet among young people, the EU has offered policy guidance through its Strategy for a Better Internet for Children (Commission 2012). The EU is also creating a safer online environment for children fighting against the online distribution of child sexual abuse material.
- Children’s rights as consumers are also protected through the EU’s health and consumer policies. Toys, for instance, must comply with safety criteria before they can be marketed in the EU (Toy Safety Directive 2009).
The list above is just a glimpse into the fruit of collective activities that the EU has led to promote and protect the rights of children.
The EU has the potential to do a lot more in these areas and beyond. For instance, the plight of refugee and migrant children cannot be ignored if the EU sees itself as a force for good. Through the upcoming European Pillar of Social Rights, we expect social inclusion efforts to be reinforced and a greater emphasis on participatory democracy that engages children of all ages and backgrounds. The future of Europe cannot be defined without engaging with those who will live through it and eventually drive it.
Over the next few months, leaders will consult and discuss many potential pathways for Europe’s future. Children’s rights ought to be retained as a requisite factor in the choices that shape this future.