Fuel Crisis in Europe
After years of economic downfall, increased rates of poverty and supply chain disruptions, Europe finds itself launched into a desolate fuel crisis due to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian crisis. The cost of fuel and electricity is likely to increase, further impacting families as they try and survive Europe’s cold winters.

Although the fuel crisis in Europe is often accredited to the Russo-Ukranian War, the problem has its roots in years of crises and decisions that have left Europe with an acute shortage of fuel. Aside from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the backlash from the 2020 pandemic is the most immediate culprit. The pandemic saw a lower production of natural gas and inadequate maintenance, leading to problems in production now. It also has led to a sharp increase in fuel demand after the lifting of restrictions, causing a shortage in fuel.

In addition to the pandemic and sanctions on Russian exports, much of the fuel crisis in Europe has stemmed from a decrease in energy production. Many countries have been trying to phase out natural gas and coal, shifting towards more sustainable alternatives. In fact, in the past decade, natural gas production halved, with imports making up 83% of gas consumption today.

Impact of Fuel Shortages

Because many homes in Eastern and Central Europe already rely on burning coal and wood to heat their homes, the fuel crisis has exacerbated the ongoing coal shortage. Many countries in the EU have pledged to eliminate the use of coal due to its carbon footprint. In addition, Europe placed sanctions on the coal exports of Russia – one of Europe’s biggest coal producers.

The shortage of coal and other fuel sources has led to many European leaders rolling back on measures designed to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Several coal-producing countries, such as Poland and Bulgaria have increased their coal usage and reopened old cold-fire plants. Poland has also lifted bans on burning lignite and household coal, though the country fears that the lifted ban still will not meet Polish energy needs.

Wood burning is also expected to increase throughout Europe as governments encourage their citizens to burn wood to keep warm. Countries like Bosnia Herzegovina and Bulgaria have even banned wood exports, fearing that there will not be enough wood for domestic purposes.

An Increase in Pollution

With an increase in the use of dirty fossil fuels and wood burning comes concerns for the impact on people’s health and well-being. It is well-known that countries with high usage of coal and other fossil fuels have a significantly higher rate of air pollution which causes thousands of deaths. One report estimated that 18 coal plants alone were enough to cause around 19,000 deaths in nearby regions. Wood burning is just as deadly as coal, if not more. One study earlier this year found that wood-burning accounted for the most pollution-related health issues and was responsible for €17 billion in health costs across Europe.

The tremendous impact that coal or wood burning has on people’s health means that a sharp increase in usage of it will also increase health issues. This is especially concerning for impoverished groups across Europe as they are the most likely to be affected by this issue. As prices have surged, research has found that poorer households that cannot afford energy are more likely to resort to burning coal, wood or other harmful materials.

This is especially problematic considering that poorer people are more likely to have exposure to air pollution as it is. They are more likely to live in areas with worse air quality and do not often have access to health care to treat possible health issues.

Mitigation Strategies

Despite the tremendous effects the energy crisis has had on Europe, governments are working to fight it. In October, the EU introduced a new package that is intended to lower energy costs and secure energy supplies. The package intends to impose a variety of measures that would lower costs, such as negotiating prices, establishing a dynamic price limit and working to lower demand for gas.

Many other countries have introduced similar packages, spending almost €500 billion across the continent to curb prices, lower energy taxes and provide subsidies to citizens struggling with energy costs. Both packages intend to lower the burden of energy costs on families and citizens, especially low-income citizens who tend to be affected the hardest by high prices.

The Road Ahead

The impact of the fuel crisis in Europe has been tremendous on its citizens. It has led to an increase in coal, wood burning and pollution, which has particularly affected poor citizens. It is also predicted that low-income countries and citizens will continue to see an increase in air pollution and a decrease in health. However, the proposed packages to lower energy costs could not only decrease the financial burden on citizens but decrease the need to burn wood, coal and other harmful fuels.

– Padma Balaji
Photo: Flickr

Bulgarian Protesters
In mid-November 2022, Bulgarian protesters took to the streets outside the Balkan country’s Parliament building to fight for a livable minimum wage. Increasing inflation sparked the movement, and fears of minimum wage freezes prompted Bulgaria’s two largest employee unions to begin protests calling for raises in the minimum wage. The protests started right before winter because many are experiencing energy poverty and cannot afford to heat homes. Without an increase in the minimum wage, Bulgaria could have thousands, if not millions of its citizens, drop into energy poverty and lose its stance in the “eurozone.”

Bulgarian Minimum Wage

Bulgarian protesters are tackling the issue of minimum wage outside the Parliament building because the minimum wage is crushing the lower classes. Bulgaria has one of the lowest minimum wages in Europe. Bulgaria’s minimum wage is not keeping pace with the continuously-rising inflation, as inflation has effectively outpaced the national wage increases. The minimum wage stands at BGN710 or €362 per month. However, despite the pay increases, due to the amount of taxes taken out of most minimum wage earners’ pay, they only take home about €281.

By 2020, the poverty rate in Bulgaria reached 22.1%. The updated figures show the actual number of Bulgarians in poverty is likely much higher. About 35% of Bulgarians are considered the “working poor,” according to Radio Bulgaria. To be “working poor” one must have a job, work 27+ weeks a year, in the labor force, but still fall below the poverty line. The term “working poor in Bulgaria refers to those supporting themselves on minimum wage.

Bulgaria’s working poor have no way out of their poor status as long as the minimum wage remains as low as it is. With the inadequate pay, many Bulgarians fear the costs of living, specifically energy costs, might increase and force them into “energy poverty.”

Bulgaria’s Energy Poverty

Energy poverty is the lack of access to modern energy sources and services. It is one of the main causes of Bulgarian protesters taking to the capital. Energy poverty is one of the dominant challenges the Bulgarian government has faced since the Parliamentary and presidential election of 2021, as it is one of the poorest energy nations in Europe. In 2020, 27.5% of Bulgarian homes did not have adequate heating and 22.2% of Bulgarian homeowners and property renters were late or in debt due to overwhelming energy bills.

Bulgaria depends on Russia for 75% of its gas, making it one of the nations most reliant on Russian gas. The European Union held off on implementing the same bans on Russian oil that the U.S. did, but Russia slashed its gas exports and EU members scramble to seek alternate natural gas providers. The oil pipeline transporting Russian gas and oil to Eastern European nations, including Bulgaria, will remain open but with limited quantities. The minimal gas imports are likely to cause gas prices to soar again. Prices have been fluctuating wildly. The EU is in talks to set a cap on Russian gas prices, which the EU will decide on by December 5, 2022.

Until the EU sets that cap, though, Bulgarians dependent on Russian gas while only earning minimum wage will continue to struggle. Fears of living in energy poverty are motivating Bulgarian protesters as they head into the region’s coldest months of the year.

Protests and Their Implications

Bulgarian protesters are led by the nation’s top two labor unions. Bulgaria’s labor unions are a force to be reckoned with and are responsible for a significant number of Bulgaria’s workforce. Around 15% to 17% of Bulgaria’s workforce is involved with labor unions. Nationwide, there are two dominant labor unions, with countless smaller unions covering various employees and their protective needs.

Bulgaria is a member of the EU and is on its way to being a member of the “eurozone.” To be a member of the zone, one must meet four critical criteria: price stability, sustainable public finances, an inflation rate that is not more than 1.5 percentage points higher than the rate of the three best-performing member states, and exchange-rate stability. Bulgaria met the criteria required to join the eurozone, which should go into effect on January 1, 2024. However, with inflation continuing to rise and a lackluster minimum wage impacting the economy, Bulgaria could lose its spot in the eurozone.

Bulgarian protesters are calling for Parliament to raise the minimum wage before an economic freeze takes hold, Al Jazeera reports. Should a freeze happen, the minimum wage will remain low in the current inflation crisis, and the government will lose its spot in the eurozone. Without an increased minimum wage, Bulgaria’s economy will not have the proper structure to lift its poor citizens out of their financial danger.

Ending poverty for Bulgarians is possible, especially if the government raises the minimum wage, and the efforts to reach this goal earned the attention of the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA). Bulgaria joined in November 2021, a recent but significant change. The IDA has granted $458 billion to 114 countries through grants with 0% interest. The funds go to programs that decrease poverty and improve the economic status of a nation. Joining the IDA is symbolic of Bulgaria’s progress away from the title of “developing.” Bulgaria’s economy is improving, but inflation and a lower minimum wage could halt any potential improvements. With the IDA’s assistance and a raised minimum wage, Bulgaria has a phenomenal chance of securing those better futures.

– Clara Mulvihill
Photo: Flickr

Division in Cyprus
Cyprus has a history of continuous external attacks and invasions. The most recent, the Ottoman and British invasions, largely explain the country’s current situation. That is the division in Cyprus between the Greek part and the Turkish part. Despite the complicated situation of a divided Cyprus, the country became a member of the EU in May 2004. Partition is a reality in Cyprus for more than four decades already so it is important to see how the EU is helping with this situation, mainly explaining how it is dealing with the core challenges and if there are any chances of reunification.

Historical Background

Since the start of British rule and the defeat of Ottoman influence, the pressure for Greek independence was present. By 1955, the Greek government raised the issue of self-determination and in April 1955, the EOKA revolution began. The British had trouble repressing the Greek Cypriots (GC) by themselves so they recruited Turkish Cypriots (TC). The British Empire not only prevented the island from joining Greece but increased the enmity between the GC and the TC which provoked the division in Cyprus.

The division in Cyprus started after it gained independence in 1960, but differences soon proved that ordinary coexistence was impossible. Almost 15 years later, negotiations were still stagnant. Therefore, in 1974, a 220 km long frontier, known as the Green Line emerged, separating the TC and GC regions. This Berlin-style iron curtain suggested that the only way to achieve peace is by granting the two regions the capacity to self-govern. In 1983, the Turkish side of Cyprus declared its independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. However, it remains a state that only Turkey recognizes.

What are the Challenges?

According to a report that the Congressional Research Service published, the per capita GDP in Cyprus by 2019 was $30,000 while in the north, it was more than half that amount, approximately $14,000. The TC has an open, free market economy, however, it is largely dependent on Turkey as a trading partner. TC’s diplomatic and economic isolation has limited its business opportunities and capacity to grow. The lack of political stability and recognition by other countries increases the costs of foreign investment in the region and makes it less attractive. Therefore, it also has to rely on Turkey for financial assistance.

This dependency has led to an unbearable situation in Northern Cyprus due to the Turkish Economic crisis. Inflation has sky-rocketed in Turkey, especially over the past few years. The Turkish Lira is 18.6 against the U.S. dollar, as of November 2022. This means an unprecedented fall in the value of Turkish currency, and thus, everything imported becomes more expensive.

Meanwhile, this situation in Northern Cyprus led to worrying shortages of basic goods in the region, including fuel. During the first half of January 2022, electricity cuts in Northern Cyprus were an ongoing thing. Constant power cuts, sometimes even daily mean no heating which severely affects a person’s quality of life. Furthermore, students are having difficulty studying during long periods of power cuts, making education harder for many.

The Ways the EU is Helping

When Cyprus asked to join the EU the problem was whether to recognize Cyprus as part of the EU or recognize the division in Cyprus and the existence of the Turkish state on the island, thus being the first power to recognize it apart from Turkey. Cyprus became a member but the EU only recognizes the Greek part of the island. Northern Cyprus, which the TC populate, is outside EU legislation and remains an isolated region in international affairs.

However, ever since Cyprus joined, the EU has stated its commitment to help alleviate the isolation that the TC suffered. Therefore, it established an EU Aid Programme for the Turkish Cypriot community whose ultimate aim is to encourage reunification. The specific objectives in order to achieve this are:

  • Improving the economic situation in the TC.
  • Promoting communication and cooperation with the GC.
  • Establishing relations with other countries.
  • Preparing them for EU legislation.

From the start of the Programme until 2018, the EU dedicated almost €520 million to improve the situation for the TC region. Furthermore, even though EU legislation does not allow the TC to trade freely with EU members, since 2004, it has allowed all North Cyprus products to be sold to the GC and through them to other member states, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Due to this allowance, the EU became the largest trading partner after Turkey.

On the other hand, the relationship that has emerged between Turkey and the EU since the accession of Cyprus as a member is also important. In 2004, Turkey started negotiations to join the EU. Indirectly, the best way to help the situation in divided Cyprus is to change Turkey’s attitude towards the problem, according to International Council. Pushing for negotiations in Cyprus, rather than defending the separation would be good proof that Turkey is ready to make changes in favor of joining the EU.

However, up until today, Turkey’s accession negotiations have frozen. For Turkey, the EU means an opportunity to improve the economic problems in the country and for the EU, the accession of Turkey ensures a way of transforming the country’s practices into respecting democracy, rule of law and human rights. Reaching an agreement with these unnegotiable conditions has been difficult for Turkey which is clearly in democratic backsliding.

What the EU could do to revive democracy is clearly limited and depends greatly on the country itself. Therefore, reunification in Cyprus is a matter that has to wait but the EU has been helpful in stabilizing the problem, supporting the TC community, and avoiding violent confrontation.

– Carla Tomas
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Energy Poverty in Europe
On October 4, 2022, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) issued a report entitled “Tackling energy poverty and the EU’s resilience: challenges from an economic and social perspective.” Indeed, within the European Union, there is a need to tackle the issue of energy poverty as winter approaches. With energy inflation reaching 40% due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, many EU households may not be able to heat their residences this winter due to increasing rates of energy poverty in Europe. The European Commission estimated in September 2022 that roughly 34 million individuals in the EU are enduring “energy poverty to varying degrees.”

EU Measures to Tackle Energy Poverty

The European Union has already adopted a few policies to fight energy poverty in Europe in the last few years. With the 2019 “clean energy for all Europeans package,” the EU is establishing key measures to counter energy poverty in Europe. The package aims to increase energy security by protecting vulnerable consumers from steep energy prices and a lack of energy resources. To achieve this, the EU aims to rely less on external energy supplies by diversifying its sources of energy supplies and increasing its investment in renewable energy sources within the EU.

When it comes to monitoring energy poverty, the EU receives reports from EU Member States on the number of people suffering from energy poverty. These reports are mandatory since the implementation of the “directive on common rules for the internal market for electricity” in 2019 and enable the EU to allocate more or less support according to the numbers.

The Energy Efficiency Directive (implemented in 2012 but amended in 2018) directs Member States to implement “a share of energy efficiency measures… as a priority in households affected by energy poverty or in social housing.” With such measures, those households would consume less energy and would pay lower energy bills.

The Regulation on the Governance of the Energy Union stresses the obligation of EU Member States to each establish their own “national indicative objective” to reduce the number of households suffering from energy poverty. Then, each country must update the EU regarding progress toward this goal. In addition, Member States have to provide information on the measures and policies already implemented and future measures to address energy poverty.

Other Actions

Other than the directives and policies, the EU has other tools to help Member States fight energy poverty. The Energy Poverty Advisory Hub (EPAH) is the main EU initiative addressing energy poverty through a “collaborative network of stakeholders,” the EU website says. The EPAH builds on the energy poverty reduction work conducted by the Energy Poverty Observatory. The EPAH distributes resources to stakeholders to guide them in taking action to reduce energy poverty. This includes online courses, reports, guidebooks and technical assistance. The EPAH will run from 2021 to 2024.

Energy inflation due to the Russia-Ukraine war has increased the number of households living in energy poverty across Europe. Considering this situation, it is essential for the EU to prioritize fighting energy poverty, with a special focus on disadvantaged households. The EU is committed to energy sustainability and is taking action to achieve this.

– Evan Da Costa Marques
Photo: Flickr

Forced Labor in the EU
The ultimate goal of forced labor is to obtain cheap labor for a considerable profit margin. For reference, the annual profit from forced labor practices in Africa, the poorest continent in the world, was $13.1 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, the annual profit per victim of forced labor in Africa was $3,900. The EU recently motioned for novel legislation within the union to address and aid the issue in Europe. For reference, the annual profit from forced labor in the EU was $46.9 billion in 2014, while the annual profit per victim of forced labor was $34,800.

About Forced Labor

Forced labor is the involuntary coercion of individuals into providing employment for fraudulent services. Approximately 27.6 million people across the globe are victims of forced labor. Forced labor traffickers generally target vulnerable groups of people in need of work and money. Those with language barriers, unsettled immigration statuses, disabilities, large debt or those living in great poverty make for basic forced labor targets because they are highly susceptible to manipulation. There are several sectors of forced labor that individuals may be subject to. For example, sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, agriculture and domestic work are all sectors of forced labor. Moreover, all sectors of forced labor feature a power imbalance between the employee and employer. Often, employers will threaten or intimidate workers through physical or sexual violence or; for example, by withholding important documents.

The EU’s Proposed Legislation

On September 14, 2022, the European Union proposed a ban on all goods made via forced labor throughout the 27 nations under its jurisdiction. The rule would mandate that all goods made with forced labor at any point in the supply chain – imported or domestic – would not be allowed for sale in EU nations. The committee plans to launch an international campaign in which EU customs authorities would detain all products made with forced labor at EU borders. Furthermore, at the domestic level, the EU plans to include the immediate withdrawal of all products that use any degree of forced labor for their production. They also plan to comprehensively investigate all forced labor risks submitted by civil society by operating a database of forced labor risks focusing on specific products and geographic areas.

Why This is Important

If this proposal is agreed upon, it should be implemented and applied throughout the EU in just two years. This is an incredibly important global advancement regarding the practice of forced labor because it will essentially make it completely unprofitable in EU nations. Seeing as how it is the second most profitable region in terms of forced labor in the world, the EU’s enactment of this legislation will work to discourage the practice globally. Additionally, this can potentially impose political pressure on other nations to take action regarding their forced labor policies, which will contribute to a global decrease in the issue. By encouraging the ban of these products, the EU is enabling millions of people who are already subject to poverty, to escape additional abuse.

– Aarika Sharma
Photo: Flickr

the-eu-introduces-the-european-pillar-of-social-rights-action-plan
The European Union (EU) has implemented a plan to tackle its most prominent social issues by the year 2030. In 2021, the EU created the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, a plan that targets social inequality on the continent. The plan includes various principles and goals that the EU hopes to achieve by the year 2030. For the plan to succeed, leaders all across will need to take responsibility and cooperate to improve social conditions on the continent.

20 Key Principles

The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan targets 20 key principles that it highlights in three chapters. The first chapter focuses on making jobs more accessible to more people in Europe. It includes principles like gender equality and equal opportunities. Meanwhile, chapter two is about working conditions to ensure that conditions are fair for Europe’s employees to create a healthy, secure and productive work environment. This chapter identifies principles such as wages and work-life balance.

The final chapter is the longest of the three as it contains 10 of the 20 principles. It prioritizes inclusion for all citizens regardless of age, gender, economic status and more. A few of the principles that comprise chapter 3 are health care, social protection and minimum income.

Ambitious Goals

In addition to the 20 key principles, the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan also includes three “ambitious targets” for the EU to reach by 2030. The first of these goals is to have at least 78% of the population between the ages of 20 to 64 employed. In 2020, Europe had an employment rate of 72.4%. To reach that 78% mark, Europe would have to raise its employment rate by 0.56% each year of the decade.

The second target is to have at least 60% of adults participating in training. This includes educational learning and job training. According to the European Commission, 37% of adults were in training in 2016. If the EU intends to achieve its goal, this number will have to nearly double by 2030.

The third and final goal is to have a reduction of at least 15 million people that are at risk of poverty or exclusion. In 2019, there were 91 million people that were at risk of poverty or social exclusion. If the EU can achieve this goal, it would make for a 16.5% decrease in this area.

The Timeline

 As mentioned before, the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan sets goals for the year 2030; and, it also sets out smaller objectives to reach each year before then. Currently, the plan lists specified goals up until the year 2025. More goals for the following years will likely be added as the decade progresses.

For 2021 and 2022, there are many objectives that the EU hopes to reach. For example, 2021’s list of goals includes a plan of action for the “social economy,” an “employment report” and a “skills and talent package.” In 2022, the EU is looking to propose various work-related initiatives as well as achieve other goals.

The next three years only contain one or two goals each. The first report on “essential services” and the European Social Security Pass (ESSPASS) will be complete in 2023. The year 2024 will evaluate the European Labor Authority and 2025 will review the Action Plan as a whole.

Steps That the EU Has Already Taken

So far, the EU has already made significant progress toward reaching its goals. Some goals reached completion before the EU created its Action Plan. For example, in 2020, the EU had already implemented multiple social equality strategies and a “skills agenda.”

In addition to these, other initiatives have emerged to help the EU with the action plan. In 2021, the European Commission started the first stage of its consultation of social partners to improve working conditions across the continent.

The year 2021 also saw Europe make strides toward improving equality. The Commission created a strategy regarding the rights of people with disabilities. This strategy works toward the goal of making sure that none of Europe’s population experiences exclusion from society. As Europe goes further into the decade, it can expect to see many progressive movements and changes that will surely improve the continent’s state of social equality.

– Tyshon Johnson
Photo: Flickr

Poverty In HungaryAfter joining the European Union in 2004, Hungary seemed to be on the path toward a more prosperous future. However, once Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán touted the idea of Hungary becoming an illiberal state, tensions between Brussels and Budapest reached new highs, threatening to destabilize the European Union with an autocratic member and potentially increase poverty in Hungary.

Orbán Erodes Democracy in Hungary

After first holding office from 1998 to 2002, Prime Minister Orbán returned as head of government in 2010, wanting to redesign governmental institutions. Orbán, a member of the Fidesz political party, subverted democratic norms and cemented one-party rule to ensure his assignment as prime minister and the supermajority of his party Fidesz.

In more than a decade since Orbán returned to the premiership, the Prime Minister and Fidesz have completely undermined Hungary’s democracy, erasing governmental integrity through the following methods:

  • Rewriting Hungary’s Constitution
  • Undermining the independence of the judiciary
  • Controlling media, including the Internet, television channels and even school textbooks
  • Gerrymandering to guarantee a Fidesz majority
  • Suspending civil society organizations

As a result of Orbán’s reforms, the think tank Freedom House demoted Hungary to the status of partly free, indicating that Hungary’s democracy is at the cusp of autocracy, according to E-International Relations.

Poverty in Hungary

Despite Hungary’s descent from a protected democracy, poverty under Orbán’s leadership is reaching new lows.

From 2015 to 2019, there was a 2.2% drop in poverty rates, leaving only 12.3% of Hungarians below the national poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted this trend of alleviating poverty rates, but official numbers are not yet available, as per the World Bank.

Hungary Depends on EU Funds

As Brussels and Budapest continue to clash, Hungary may become subject to financial repercussions. As one of the largest recipients of EU funds, the landlocked nation may find itself in tough times if cut off from much-needed aid.

From the 2014-2020 budget, Hungary received €40 billion ($40.8 billion). In just 2018, Hungary received €6.3 billion ($6.43 billion) from the EU, almost 5% of the country’s GDP.  Without EU funding, the nation’s economic growth and ability to counter domestic poverty may stagnate or suffer.

Confrontations Between the EU and Hungary

Hungary’s turn against democratic norms puts it at odds with the European Union, prompting concerns about whether the EU should continue funding the nation as it refutes the multinational organization’s liberal democratic values.

Hungary’s violations of rule-of-law principles by undermining the country’s judiciary, education system and electoral integrity have prompted the EU to assess the best path forward to divert Hungary from autocracy, according to E-International Relations. In addition, the EU has accused Hungary of mishandling its funds, citing a lack of transparency and corruption (including 52 probes into misuse of funds) in how the nation utilizes EU funds.

In the past, the European Union has explored two main tools to handle Hungary’s disobedience: Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon and infringement procedures.

Under Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU can suspend certain rights of member states if a nation violates liberal democratic values, according to E-International Relations. However, this procedure requires a unanimous vote by all EU member states, rendering this feat impossible due to Orbán’s staunch ally in Poland.

The other main tactic the EU has tried is infringements procedures, which, simply put, is a legal action against an EU country that does not uphold EU law. In the past, infringement procedures in Hungary totaled €100,000 a day, according to E-International Relations. However, taking Hungary to court is time-consuming and potentially too ineffective to curb the nation from authoritarianism.

Brussels has resorted to withholding funds from Hungary within the past two years. The EU prevented Hungary from accessing more than €7.2 billion ($7.34 billion) from the bloc’s coronavirus response fund, citing ongoing breaches of EU law.

Now, as tensions rise, Brussels can leverage its conditionality regulation. This tool, which came into effect in January 2021, allows the EU to withhold money from its general fund from member nations for rule-of-law breaches. The European Union can prevent Hungary from accessing €40 billion ($40.8 billion) from its 2021-2027 budget if Orbán does not abide by the EU’s rules. This robust measure, which could push Orbán farther away from autocracy, may ultimately be detrimental to poverty in Hungary.

A Path Forward

As Brussels and Budapest continue clashing over democratic principles and funding, the future of poor Hungarians is in limbo. Financial penalties could prevent infrastructural development, welfare assistance and other critical programs that combat poverty, impeding the progress made under Orbán’s regime.

However, chances for a compromise remain hopeful. In June, Orbán stated, “Everything is ready for an agreement to be struck between the union and Hungary, which I think both sides need.”

With the two sides approaching an agreement and potentially unlocking withheld funds, Hungary could hopefully be on a path away from both autocracy and poverty.

In the meantime, non-government organizations are working to combat poverty in Hungary, with Habitat for Humanity Hungary being a notable example. Habitat for Humanity began its work in Hungary in 1996 and it helps supply homes for the impoverished. In 2019, Habitat for Humanity has helped more than 230 Hungarians, trying to minimize the number of people in poor living conditions.

Although the political situation remains precarious, there is still hope for the poorest Hungarians. Brussels and Budapest are inching closer toward an agreement, hopefully bringing more assistance to the poorest Hungarians shortly.

Michael Cardamone
Photo: Flickr

Elderly Poverty in Croatia
Inadequate pensions or non-existent pensions exacerbate elderly poverty in Croatia, infringing on the right to social security. With rising poverty rates among the elderly comes an increased risk of homelessness. Other factors also play a role, such as a rapidly aging population and the “feminization of the elderly population.”

The Rights of the Elderly in Croatia

Inadequate pensions further heighten elderly poverty in Croatia and infringe on the right to social security. According to the Croatian Pension Insurance Institute, “in April 2019, 457,365 retirees received a pension of less than HRK 2,000,” which amounts to about $281. Furthermore, “the average pension income in April 2019 was HRK 2,435.20,” which equates to about $342.

Higher life expectancy rates and decreased birth rates also contribute to an aging population, as in other countries. According to Croatia’s 2011 Census, the age group of 65 and older accounted for 17.7% of the population while in 2017 this percentage rose to 20.1%.

The feminization of the elderly age group means more women than men account for the elderly. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics of the Republic of Croatia (CBS), in 2017, the total number of women in the age group 65 or older stood at 59.66% compared to 40.34% for men. CBS projects that the elderly population aged 65 and older will rise to 27.6% by 2051.

Taking Action to Combat Elderly Poverty in Croatia

The Social Care Strategy for the Elderly in the Republic of Croatia for the Period 2017-2020 introduces a solution to non-existent pensions that amplify elderly poverty in Croatia. The nation’s tax system will fund a national pension, also known as a “basic pension.” This will cover “people who do not have the required social insurance record to retire but are over the legal pensionable age of 65” and do not receive income through other sources. To be eligible, individuals must meet certain requirements. In particular, the introduction of a basic pension aims to prioritize extremely impoverished Croatian women residing in rural locations.

A September 2019 study by the Ministry of Labour and the Pension System noted that in the year 2017, the at-risk poverty rate stood at 28.6% for people 65 and older in general. However, in terms of gender, the at-risk poverty rate for older women stood at 31.7% in comparison to 24.1% for older men.

The study concluded that at least 30,000 to 40,000 people aged 65 or older did not meet the minimum requirements to be eligible for a pension, with women accounting for most of these ineligible individuals. At the time, discussions were underway to ensure the pension system becomes more inclusive and less restrictive.

The introduction of the national pension in Croatia has ignited a public debate between liberal commentators and retirement associations. Retirement associations are in favor of the national pension whereas liberal commentators have concerns about “an increase in social transfers,” preferring that the government use the money for initiatives to create employment opportunities in Croatia. The national pension came into effect on January 1, 2021.

Looking Ahead

Despite limitations that the elderly face, such as pension ineligibility, “insufficiently accessible social services,” inadequate transportation infrastructure in rural regions, “long waiting lists for medical procedures and treatments” and the high costs of home aid services, Croatia is taking steps to address elderly poverty.

– Jacara Watkins
Photo: Flickr

Three Seas Initiative
The Three Seas Initiative, which Polish President Andrzej Duda and former Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitrovic founded in 2015, is an economic forum of 12 Eastern and Central European nations created as a means for Eastern Europe to boost economic development, expand infrastructure and promote cooperation in the energy sector. The Three Seas Initiative works by securing investment for infrastructure, energy and digitization projects to rectify the gap between East-West and North-South infrastructure in Europe. As more investments continue to support digital infrastructure, energy and transportation projects, people in poverty in Eastern Europe are likely to experience greater economic prosperity through the increasing trade opportunities and greater access to markets through economic investment.

Three Seas Initiative Projects

As of July 2021, the Three Seas Initiative has 90 interconnection projects with a total estimated investment value of €180.9 billion. Registered in 2018, the Rail-2-Sea project is a Three Seas Initiative plan to build a railway connecting the port of Gdansk and the port of Constanta across Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. This plan will further link the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea over four different branches of a railway, each with its local plans for modernization.

Another Three Seas Initiative infrastructure plan is the Rail Baltica plan. This plan aims to increase infrastructural integration between Baltic Sea nations. More specifically, in a partnership with Finland, Rail Baltica is creating infrastructure to construct “missing cross-border connections” and “integrate the Baltic States in the European rail network” while dissolving “transport infrastructure bottlenecks.”

These plans are all, in one way or another, increasing economic interconnection and mobility between Eastern European nations. These infrastructural developments will provide more opportunities for people living in Eastern Europe by providing greater access to European markets and more efficient supply chains. The cheapening of consumer goods through trade is especially beneficial to low-income Eastern European citizens who could potentially afford better and more daily necessities.

Impact of the Three Seas Initiative

Nations within the Three Seas Initiative saw greater economic growth and faced less economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other European Union (EU) nations. According to a July 2021 speech by IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, “During 2015-2019 they [Three Seas Initiative nations] averaged 3.8% GDP growth a year, nearly double the rate of EU-15.” Furthermore, the economies of Three Seas nations only contracted by approximately 4% whereas Western European economies shrunk by approximately double that.

Throughout the initiative, the poverty rates of many nations, especially in Southeast Europe, have declined. For example, Romania had a poverty rate of 25.4% in 2015, the founding year of the Three Seas Initiative. Right before the pandemic in 2019, Romania’s poverty rate declined to 23.8%.

The Three Seas Initiative similarly oversaw a decrease in the risk of poverty in Hungary with 28.2% of people facing the risk of poverty in 2015 in comparison to 17.8% in 2019. Slovenia saw a decrease in poverty as well, albeit relatively minor from 13.9% in 2015 to 12% in 2018, and it only rose .4% in 2019.

The Three Seas Initiative has vast potential to deepen economic ties within Europe, foster sustainable European energy and reduce poverty. As it carries out more projects, the U.S. and the EU can continue to encourage economic investment and development of the Three Seas Initiative countries. Such economic investment and capital inflow have the potential to make Eastern Europe more prosperous while lifting people out of poverty.

– Alexander Richter
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Homelessness in Poland
Poland’s
2004 Act on Social Assistance defines a homeless person as someone who “is not living in a dwelling” and “is not registered for permanent residence or is registered for a permanent residence in a dwelling in which they have no possibility of living.” The nation and organizations are taking several steps to address homelessness in Poland.

The Root Causes of Homelessness in Poland

In Europe overall, some researchers have found that “drug misuse, especially when co-related with mental illness, is a major factor in causing homelessness.” However, this does not mean that all homeless people have drug problems or mental illnesses. From January 2005 through June 2006 in Poland, experts conducted a study on the links between substance addiction and mental health diagnosis in homeless people. The study concludes that out of 200 homeless people, 57.4% suffer from substance addiction or a mental illness. Though not direct causes of homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness serve as contributing factors to homelessness, especially if there is little to no assistance to help them overcome or manage their conditions.

In Poland specifically, homelessness is largely linked to a lack of affordable homes on the market, placing adequate shelter out of reach for many. According to Habitat for Humanity, “Poland lacks about 1.5 million affordable homes.” In addition, about 70% of Polish families cannot afford the costs of a mortgage and Poland’s “rent market accounts [for] only 6% of the total housing stock.” Due to these circumstances, many struggle without adequate shelter.

Nonprofit work with a focus on homelessness helps to transform lives, ensuring that 40% of Polish citizens (around 15 million people) no longer have to live in inadequate and cramped housing.

Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity is a global nonprofit organization that began working in Poland in 1992. The organization’s vision is “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” Habitat for Humanity’s work centers around providing assistance to impoverished people who lack shelter or live in substandard housing.

Habitat for Humanity has established the very “first nonprofit rental agency in Poland,” which aims to improve “access to affordable housing” for impoverished Polish people. The organization also raises awareness of homelessness in Poland and advocates for amendments to legislation and policies to increase access to affordable housing in Poland.

On the ground, Habitat for Humanity assists impoverished people in constructing and renovating housing. The organization works with the individuals in need as well as partners, donors and volunteers to achieve these goals. Habitat for Humanity also supports “homeless shelters, centers for victims of violence, nursing homes for disabled people, orphanages or youth facilities” through reconstruction or renovation work that ensures Poland’s most vulnerable groups reside in adequate conditions.

Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program provides opportunities to global volunteers to construct housing along with families in need. The program runs in several countries with severe houses crises, such as Poland. During the months of March through September, the Global Village program hosts construction projects in the Polish cities of Warsaw and Gliwice.

Since its establishment in Poland, the organization has constructed 120 housing units, among many other efforts to address homelessness in Poland on a broader scale.

The Future of Homelessness in Poland

Recognizing the struggles of the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Polish government allotted more than PLN 17 million ($4.2 million) in 2020 to assist the homeless. Through the Streetwork Academy project, more than 4,200 homeless people received support during COVID-19 through funding worth PLN 5.45 million ($1.3 million). From June to September 2020, the project distributed more than 20,000 protective face masks to the homeless.

With ongoing commitments to address homelessness in Poland, there is hope for one of the nation’s most disadvantaged groups to live a better quality of life.

– Kyle Swingle
Photo: Pixabay