The referendum on the UK's membership is fast approaching, and arguments in favour of staying in are being made to the public. Many of these are about our place in the world, and the fact that we are "stronger in", and indeed we are stronger in. But that is not the full story.
Those of us who see a bright future for the UK in a more social and more compassionate European Union, are called upon to demonstrate exactly how the EU affects the lives of citizens for the better, and how this makes the UK a more socially just society. In fact, evidence of that is in the work that MEPs do every day.
We must remember that the EU is a political platform just like our national government, or local council: it is shaped by the way citizens vote, engage, and react. If we want to bring about more social justice in Europe, we must take action to bring it about. Being in the EU can not only make us stronger, but also more humane.
This week the European Parliament adopted a report on the EU's anti-poverty policy, particularly on energy poverty, laying out steps that ought to be taken by the European Commission and national governments in order to foster social inclusion and prosperity for those who have been left out.
The financial crisis and subsequent austerity have negatively affected women more than men, causing what many groups have called a 'feminisation of poverty'. Women and girls face specific circumstance and gender-based obstacles which may make it easier for them to fall into poverty, or more difficult to get out of it, or hard for them to be economically independent. I have had the privilege of being a lead author on a plan to tackle these obstacles.
Back in 2010, the European Union committed to reducing the number of people facing poverty in Europe by 20 million by the year 2020. This is to be done in part by investing EU funds to support programmes that alleviate poverty, to pass legislation on such European issues as the energy single market. However, in most areas, like housing, healthcare, or education, it is up to national governments to take action, and the EU can only provide guidance, or additional funds. It is then up to national governments to take action and to implement or adapt European recommendations, or to share best practice.
It is clear we need fresh political ambition to eradicate poverty across Europe and, as we set out in this report, it is clear there is no way of alleviating poverty without also tackling gender inequality.
The European Union must work to address the concerns of vulnerable women, especially single-mothers, who are so often left behind by government policy. This is another step in the EU's history of advancing women's rights and gender equality, and is particularly important in the light of austerity.
We need a European definition of energy poverty, and we need it to include a gender perspective, reflective of the fact female-headed households are more likely to be energy poor. There are many concrete targeted policies we propose, like ensuring that renovation policies must be targeted at consumers that are energy poor.
All too often innovative sustainable housing programmes target upmarket consumers, and not those households that cannot afford proper heating, or are suffering from dilapidated infrastructure, and insufficient insulation. Women in particular may face obstacles in access to finance, and may be left out of housing innovation programmes. European funding or coordinated initiatives can target vulnerable consumers, including women, and ensure they benefit from programmes aimed at combatting energy poverty. That is why including a gender-sensitive definition of energy poverty in the European Union's building's performance directive, would have a significant impact on women and men at a grassroots level.
Another point we addressed was the need for greater research into female homelessness, a phenomenon, which is poorly understood at the moment. Women become homeless for a complex variety of reasons, including gender-based violence, over-indebtedness, and relationships with dependents. Once on the streets, women tend to avoid services, and do not show up in statistics. Tackling the plight of homeless women may help us to alleviate female poverty overall.
The Commission and national governments must include a strong gender pillar in all of their social policy, showing that the EU acts for its constituents and for gender equality and social justice. In all of the tumultuous political developments we are seeing now across the EU, it is easy to forget issues of economic and social policy. However, fostering a more inclusive, tolerant and equal society is the key to solving many of the problems we are seeing in the headlines.
The EU has always advanced the cause of gender equality, and social justice is one of its core values. Being a part of the Union has allowed us to look beyond our borders, and expand our horizons. With innovative policy-making, which puts gender equality at the heart of a holistic social policy, being in the EU makes us not only stronger, but more humane.