Presenting its programme on Roma inclusion, Hungary asked the European Commission to be more responsive to national circumstances regarding minorities, while EU officials called for legally-binding integration measures.
Invited to speak at the plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the Hungarian minister for human resources, Zoltán Balog, presented Budapest’s Roma inclusion programme to a European audience.
The minister took the opportunity to criticise what he described as the “lack of responsiveness and flexibility” of the European Commission on national Roma strategies.
The Hungarian official stressed that there cannot be one uniform Roma strategy for all EU countries, and that the EU executive needs to be “more responsive” to the changes demanded by member states.
“We need objective indicators, but different strategies according to the country’s specificity,” he said.
Balog explained that it took the European Commission five years to accept that Hungary needed to adapt its policies to the specific situations of Roma populations in different member states. He stressed in particular the structural differences between Eastern and Western Europe’s Romani.
While Western Roma people live mainly in big urban peripheries, over 60% of Eastern Roma groups live in rural areas and policies need to be targeted accordingly, Balog explained.
The Hungarian minister also called for the Commission to be less “polite” on the issue. “The European Commission does not want to name and shame, but that does not help us,” he said.
Balog insisted that while Roma issues need to be dealt with at national level, it is a European responsibility, adding that they are “the most vulnerable group, especially in times of economic crisis.”
His opinion was shared by his host, the president of the EESC, French politician Henri Malosse, who called for binding rules on Roma inclusion strategies.
Malosse criticised the lack of impact of the measures proposed by the Commission due to the “lack of commitment of member states". For the EESC president, the measures are “toothless” if they are not legally-binding.
The European Economic and Social Committee called on the Council “to use its power to adopt legally binding acts in order to alleviate the hardship and immense poverty that threaten the lives of Roma,” according to a statement issued by the EESC.
Hungary 'praised' for its Roma strategy
The Roma are the biggest minority in Europe, and most of them live below the poverty line. In Hungary, they represent around 7% of the population, the minister said.
To tackle the issue, the Hungarian government put in place a secretary of state dealing exclusively with Roma issues and introduced a provision in the otherwise controversial new Hungarian constitution which foresees political representation for all ethnic minorities in parliament.
Social and economic measures of different kinds have also been taken, such as mandatory kindergarten as of 3 years of age, except for children from middle-class families where the mother has only one child, a measure expected to help meet the educational challenge Roma people face.
Budapest has also decided that as of 2015, no parentless child under 12 years of age should live in care centres, and will be given to adoption or fostering.
The government is also organising training schemes in sectors such as masonry, forestry and construction aimed at giving Roma the necessary skills to find a job on the market. Around 1,000 women will be trained to become social workers, the minister told the audience.
A new school curriculum has also been introduced for Hungarian pupils, through which children will learn about Romani culture and history.
However, punitive measures are also foreseen, by cutting families off benefits if children do not attend school.
Balog, said his aim was not to “gloss over the reality” and insisted that Roma “should not be treated as victims”. They “need to take responsibility for their own lives,” the minister stressed.
The presentation of the Hungarian Roma strategy was met with great enthusiasm by the head of the EESC who said he was “very impressed” when he visited Hungary, where pupils have knowledge about the Roma culture.
He also called the critical coverage of events in Hungary “disinformation”.
Reality not as rosy
The situation on the ground however is “not as rosy”, MEP Kinga Göncz from the Hungarian Socialist opposition told EurActiv.
She criticised the government’s “shiny” statistics, obtained by enrolling people in mandatory programmes or courses as the only way to get social benefits.
“It’s a tragedy, people are forced to stay in a room doing some monkey business like connecting dots even if they have a university degree […] it violates human dignity,” she said. On the same note, Göncz said that depriving families of their benefits if their children do not attend classes was “not good”.
“What they could do is create a different school climate in which kids and parents can build trust and feel welcome, rather than punish them, it creates a worse situation,” she deplored.
For the MEP, the Hungarian government has created an atmosphere of “fear and punishment”.
“There is an attitude of repression towards the homeless, the early retired, the Roma, etc”, in which they are “forced” to do what they are told, Göncz stated.
Even though she conceded that the situation with the Roma in Hungary has improved to some extent, Göncz does not give credit to the government for it. She explains that the previous government was the one who put an end to school segregation of Roma children by “taking them out of special schools”.
She also stressed that before the collapse of communism, the Roma population enjoyed full employment, albeit in the lower strata of Hungarian society.