It is an honour for me to speak on behalf of the European Union and its member States and to take part in a general discussion of the 49th Session of the Commission for Social Development: on review of relevant UN plans and programmes of action pertaining to the situation of social groups: persons with disabilities, youth, older persons and families.
The Candidate Countries Turkey, Croatia*, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*, and Montenegro*, the Countries of the Stabilisation and Association Process and potential candidates Albania, Serbia, as well as Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia align themselves with this declaration.
Persons with disabilities
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities remains the relevant Human Rights framework, also in the EU, to ensure the respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for persons with disabilities.
In 2009, the EU Council adopted the Decision concerning the conclusion, by the European Union, of the UN Convention. Last December the instrument of formal confirmation was deposited in New York with the UN Secretary General. On 22 January 2011, the UN Convention formally entered into force in the European Union.
We are working now to ensure implementation as well as ratification by all EU Member States. The new European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 sets up a list of actions identified at EU level to supplement national ones, and it determines the mechanisms needed to implement the UN Convention at EU level. The overall objective of the Strategy is to empower women and men with disabilities to enjoy their full rights and benefit fully from their participation in the society.
The Strategy defines eight priority areas: accessibility, participation, equality, employment, education and training, social protection, health and external action, as well as key objectives and a number of different actions to achieve them.
The importance of active involvement of persons with disabilities in the implementation of the Convention should be highlighted.
The EU and its Member States also promote the rights of people with disabilities in its external action, including the EU development programmes. EU action supports and complements national initiatives to address disability issues in dialogues with non-member countries, and where appropriate includes disability and the implementation of the UN Convention, taking into account the Accra commitments on aid-effectiveness.
The European Union and its Member States welcome and support the UN Year of Youth and its theme “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”. This theme is fully in line with the EU’s values, objectives and policies.
Youth is high on the EU’s political agenda. And there are indeed key economic and social challenges facing young people today in Europe, particularly in the crisis situation. Over the last two years, the total number of young unemployed in the EU has increased by one million individuals. In other words, there are now five million young people under the age of 25 who cannot find a job. In 2009, youth unemployment in some Member States stood at over 30%, even though the situation was relatively better in several others.
An increasing number of young people are getting in a precarious position in the labour market. Short-term contracts which offer few opportunities to move forward limit young people’s progression on the career ladder even if they are well-qualified.
We cannot afford to ignore the problems faced by young Europeans. Not least, because Europe has to meet the dual challenge of an ageing population with an increasing number of pensioners and a shrinking workforce. Recent forecasts have predicted that the European workforce will shrink significantly from as early as 2012.
Last September, as part of the Europe2020 strategy, a package of new policy initiatives for young people was adopted by the European Commission. “Youth on the Move” and the “Renewed Framework for European Cooperation in the Youth Field for the period 2010-2018” set out the agenda for improving education and employment for Europe’s youth, as well as encourage active citizenship, social inclusion and solidarity of young people.
Education and training systems, as well as labour market conditions, differ significantly across different countries. But we can learn a lot from each other by exchanging experience and good practice. Pooling of resources at international level, including under the umbrella of the UN World Programme of Action for Youth, will help develop and promote successful policies to support young people.
The EU population, like those of many other world regions, is living increasingly longer and in better health conditions. This is a huge achievement, albeit one that tends often to be forgotten over the challenges that ageing populations present for our public services, especially our welfare systems and public finances. The EU is proud of the level of social protection it has achieved for its elderly population, although there is of course much room for improvement. Now the key question is how these achievements can be maintained in the current economic and demographic context.
The EU considers that the large part of the solution lies in tapping the potential of older men and women. This is why over the coming years we will focus our attention on promoting active ageing. The goal is to help older people, who wish to do so, stay longer in the labour market, contribute to society as volunteers and carers and remain autonomous for as long as possible.
The EU’s efforts to promote active ageing will culminate in but not end with the European Year for Active Ageing in 2012. This European Year has been proposed by the European Commission in September 2010, and we are confident that our legislators in the Parliament and Council will support this proposal.
The EU will of course do its bit to contribute to active ageing, within its specific powers. In 2010, we launched a major debate on pensions which looked at the adequacy and sustainability of pensions, as well as the safety of private pension schemes. One of the key questions raised concerns the retirement age and the balance between years spent working and years spent in retirement. We will follow this up in the second half of this year.
The EU believes that it is fundamental that the dignity of older people is respected or recognised. That implies that elderly persons should be socially included in society and treated with respect when in need of health and social care.
We are very pleased that this 2012 European Year for Active Ageing would coincide with the 30th anniversary of the UN’s first World Assembly on Ageing held in Vienna and the 10th anniversary of the second World Assembly in Madrid. This should be an opportunity to promote synergy and to enhance the visibility both of the UN’s and the EU’s action on ageing. In this context, the Ministerial Conference that UNECE will hold at European level in 2012 will certainly represent an important step for the development and the revitalisation of strategic actions of the EU and the UN in Europe.
The increasing life expectancy and ageing of the large cohorts of the post-war “baby boom” pose a challenge to the economic sustainability of the European welfare states. Increasing labour market participation, particularly of women (women are still less likely to be in employment than men), is an answer to this challenge. Most Member States have now achieved female employment rates of at least 60%, even though interestingly those countries where the female employment rate is the highest are also those that record the highest fertility rates. This is thanks to successful schemes which support the reconciliation of work and family life.
This is a crucial issue, not only for the labour market, but also for the long-term demographic sustainability. The European Union and its Member States are developing several initiatives on families, namely to address demographic change and promote family policy evaluation, or the exchange of good practices, through specific programs, such as the European Alliance for Families, the European Demographic Forum, as well as expert groups, demonstrating the commitment of all European Union countries to improve living conditions of families and social cohesion, with the participation of all social and economic stakeholders involved.
The European Union and its Member States are determined to cooperate in the advancement of social development. We look forward to playing an active role in the debate, aware that the Commission for Social Development is the key forum for coordinating all international efforts in an integrated manner.
Thank you for your attention.
* Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro continue to be part of the Stabilisation and Association Process