The European commission has been accused of seeking to cut EU funding for the continent’s poorest people by 50% to secure post-Brexit cost savings and extra funds for defence projects.
Jacques Vandenschrik, the president of the European Food Banks Federation, said the EU executive’s proposed spending plans for the next seven years posed a risk not only to the most vulnerable but to the stability of wider society.
EU institutions are currently hammering out the details of the bloc’s long-term budget, known as the multiannual financial framework (MFF). The UK’s withdrawal will leave a large hole to plug. Senior EU officials have described the negotiations over the commission’s proposed €1,135bn (£970bn) in spending commitments as the most difficult ever undertaken.
The current budget ending in 2020 contained a €3.8bn fund for European aid to the most deprived (FEAD) to help EU member states provide people with food and basic supplies such as clothing, shoes, soap and shampoo.
Under the proposed 2021-27 budget there would be no such dedicated fund but member states would be encouraged, although not obliged, to devote a minimum of €2bn in total to food and basic material assistance. The commission has said it hopes member states will allocate twice that minimum amount.
Vandenschrik, whose organisation helps food banks across Europe to distribute surplus produce to where it is most needed with the assistance of cash from FEAD, said the commission’s proposal was a “false economy”.
He said: “I think we must do better for the poorest of the poor. We cannot accept that we must deliver half or 60% of the food that they receive now. The explanation is that the overall budget of Europe needs to be tightened up. Brexit is one of the arguments. The other is the need for the strengthening of the defence of Europe. But this will have an impact on health and social cohesion. It is a false economy to save on the poor.
“It is far better to increase their purchase power by giving them food so that the little money they don’t spend on food they can spend on the economy.”
The commission wants to spend €13bn on a European defence fund to coordinate research and investment after calls from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for greater EU military independence from the US. The UK paid about £15.5bn into the EU budget in 2018.
Food banks represented by Vandenschrik’s umbrella organisation fed 9.5 million people in 2018 and distributed 781,00 tonnes of food, equating to 4.3m meals a day.
Vandenschrik said the poorest people in eastern European member states would probably be hit hardest by the commission’s proposals. About 33.1 million people or 6.6% of the EU population are estimated to be living in severe material deprivation.
Vandenschrik said: “The consequences will be an increase in instability and incivility. If people and their children are hungry, they will make plans. And this might not be very nice for society. We cannot make progress by leaving the poor on the side. This is not the way to make our society better.”
A commission spokeswoman said it would be “vigilant” in encouraging member states to hit the target of spending €4bn on the most deprived.
She said: “Following an impact assessment, the commission proposed to merge the fund for European aid to the most deprived into the new European social fund plus for the EU’s budget of 2021-2027 to ensure better synergies between the two funds.
“The commission has proposed an EU-level target of 4% of the European social fund plus’s budget of €100bn in shared management to address material deprivation, which would mean the amount is similar to the current FEAD budget [of €3.8bn]. The commission is confident that this target amount of funding will be programmed by member states and the commission will be vigilant in ensuring this.”
The spokeswoman added: “Member states experience different degrees of poverty and social exclusion, and several member states are expected to maintain more than 5% of funds available for the support to the most deprived. However, as a safeguard, we have proposed a 2% minimum allocation.”