Social exclusion is the consequence of a series of problems affecting an individual or group such as unemployment, discrimination, poor skills, low income, poor housing, high crime, ill-health and family breakdown. When such problems combine, they can create a vicious cycle. Social exclusion has complex and multi-dimensional causes and consequences, creating deep and long-lasting problems for individual families, for the economy, and for society as a whole.
The Commission’s 1992 Communication ‘Towards a Europe of solidarity’ (COM (92) 542) describes social exclusion as the result of ‘mechanisms whereby individuals and groups are excluded from taking part in the social exchanges, from the component practices and rights of social integration and of identity. Social exclusion goes beyond participation in working life; it is felt and shown in the fields of housing, education, health and access to services’.
Combating social exclusion and poverty were signalled as priorities at the Essen European Council of 1994, and the Lisbon Presidency Conclusions of March 2000 stipulated the objective of mainstreaming the fight against social exclusion at national and EU levels. Furthermore, the Treaty of Nice amended the Social Chapter of the EC Treaty by adding to the list of areas, where the Council may adopt measures designed to encourage cooperation between Member States, the fight against social exclusion (Article 137(1)(j) EC (now Article 153(1)(j) TFEU). The Nice European Council of December 2000 published common objectives on poverty and social exclusion. However, this area was not to be subject to Council action in the form of new directives.
To address the problems of poverty and social exclusion by 2010, the Lisbon Council agreed to adopt the open method of coordination. The key elements consisted of common objectives on poverty and social exclusion agreed at the Nice Summit in December 2000 and revised at the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council in December 2002; national action plans against poverty and social exclusion; joint reports on social inclusion and regular monitoring, evaluation and peer review; development of common indicators to provide a means of monitoring progress and comparing best practice; and a Community Action Programme to encourage cooperation between Member States to combat social exclusion.
Combating poverty and promoting social inclusion are key priorities of the Commission’s Social Policy Agenda 2006-10, supporting two of the Commission's strategic goals for the next five years: prosperity and solidarity. The Agenda launched a Community initiative to examine minimum income schemes and the integration of people excluded from the labour market, and designated 2010 as the European Year of combating exclusion and poverty.