It's time for a new deal for children

21 February 2024
It's time for a new deal for children

This contribution by Stefano Rimini, Social Policy Advisor, EU Climate Pact Ambassador and Founder of, is part of our #SocialEurope campaign, which showcases how progressive cities and regions are championing social progress, both through their inspiring vision and concrete action. 

Poverty in Europe affects children in particular; they are also the most affected by the impact of climate change. The lack of basic social rights for children is even more serious, as this could cause a crisis of legitimacy and consensus for the European project. This is why a new social vision is required, starting from the first thousand days of a child's life and rethinking the symbiotic relationship between democracy, social rights, the environment and participation. 

Against the backdrop of the social and climate crises, the overarching challenge facing Europe's democracies can be clearly seen. But while the loss of political and civil rights – such as discrimination against LGBTQ+ people or restrictions on the freedom of the press – are considered key indicators of the health of democracies, the same thing cannot be said of poverty, the collapse of biodiversity or the destruction of the natural ecosystem.

However, there is such an inextricable link between the social, climate and democratic crises that a possible failure when it comes to the Pillar of Social Rights could be the real tipping point that triggers the collapse of the entire European democratic political system. This is why measures to tackle poverty and social disparities, which in Europe are particularly affecting children, are a priority, and should be seen in connection with green measures. This is not just to avoid failing to reach the targets set by the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan – a reduction of at least 15 million in the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion by 2030, including at least 5 million children – but also because the exclusion of entire sections of society from basic social rights constitutes a risk for democracy and thus for the European dream.

In this context, the most important investment we can make for the future is to protect Europe's most vulnerable citizens – its children. The under-18 age group represents one fifth of the EU's overall population and is the group with the highest at-risk-of-poverty rate: 24.7%, compared to 20.9% for adults (over-18s). It is also children who are the most exposed and vulnerable to climate change, both physically and psychologically. Phenomena such as eco-anxiety, characterised by a pervasive fear of climate change and its consequences, have emerged as a significant concern for mental health, particularly among teenagers and young people. As we know, the impact of climate change is felt the most by families at risk of poverty and low-income families: consider for example the heatwaves and extreme climate events over the last two years in Europe. Families already in difficulty who lost their homes to the floods in Germany in 2021, or those in Iceland facing the thawing permafrost lack the financial resources they need to cope, and are the hardest hit by these extreme and increasingly frequent events.

Therefore, being born in socially or economically vulnerable circumstances (into a family with a migrant background, on the outskirts of large cities or with a disability) makes it virtually impossible to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Growing up in certain neighbourhoods of Naples, in inland areas in Romania or Sicily, perhaps with a disability or in a family with a foreign background, means facing huge obstacles in accessing basic essential services such as crèches and school meals, and entails a high risk of school drop-out and poor access to quality healthcare, support programmes and sports infrastructure. It is extremely likely that these children will also go on to become adults who experience poverty and exclusion.

For this reason, guaranteed access for all children to early childhood education and care, universal healthcare and quality education, as well as to essentials such as decent housing and having healthy food on the table, must be a priority for European policy, and especially for progressive EU policy. This is about ensuring access and participation for the next generations, not just in relation to basic services, but also with regard to the European project and political dream. If this does not happen, i.e. without the inclusion and participation of the next generations, the European project risks seeing its democratic legitimacy collapse.

The initiatives that Europe has rolled out in recent years when it comes to social and environmental issues – from the Pillar of Social Rights to the Green Deal – can be seen as a starting point and a reversal of past trends. However, a step change is now needed to give EU citizens the social security they are looking for. A radical shift in investments in childhood is needed: from education to schools, healthcare and participation. The investments must be underpinned by a participatory and environmental perspective, and linked to local areas, with local authorities playing a significant role. These authorities should be supported as they are on the front line when it comes to combating poverty, and providing key childhood services and when it comes to climate change mitigation policies.

Since 2021, the EU and the Member States have had an instrument to help them do this: the Child Guarantee. Since then, 26 national plans have been approved, national coordinators have been appointed and pilot projects rolled out with the crucial contribution of UNICEF, which has supported many European countries in analysing and implementing innovative models for intervention in this area. Now though, a genuine "new deal for child policies" is needed, starting with early childhood care services and the first thousand days of a child's life, for which the EU has set itself new objectives with the recent revision of the 2002 Barcelona targets: the Commission has asked the Member States to ensure that 50% of children under three years old are receiving early childhood education and care by 2030. All of this now needs to be implemented through the Child Guarantee.

Faced with a systemic crisis that is calling into question Europe's core values, growing conflicts and social unrest, and the impact of climate change, the best investment we can make is in children. Education and health, early childhood care, social services, participation: a new European dream should be built based on protection, rights, participation and social security. 

Child poverty is the tipping point of the democratic crisis. Now it's time for a new deal for children!


© Photo credits of the header: Markus Spiske / unsplash