The European Parliament yesterday (9 March) threw its weight behind an EU-wide strategy to support the social inclusion of Roma communities, but the European Commission is insisting that this should mainly be seen as the responsibility of national governments.
A massive majority of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) gave their backing to a strategy, which would promote targeted action at all levels to deal with the wide range of social and economic problems that affect the everyday lives of an estimated 10 million people, Europe's largest ethnic minority.
However, the European Commission has already made clear that national governments are primarily responsible for developing and implementing policies to protect fundamental rights, tackle discrimination and promote social inclusion.
Next month (5 April), the Commission is due to present proposals on creating an EU framework for national Roma integration strategies. The emphasis will be on encouraging the development of 27 national strategies, rather than one European strategy.
According to László Andor, the EU commissioner responsible for employment, social policy and inclusion, an approach based on national strategies is necessary in order to take account of "the diversity of the realities" in different countries.
"There is a common European problem, but how it appears in various member states, and how it has to be translated into national strategies, differs from Romania to France, from Slovakia to Portugal, and we have to be aware of this," the commissioner told MEPs in Strasbourg earlier this week.
Resolution wins broad backing of MEPs
"The social inclusion of Roma is one of the most important strategic challenges that Europe faces and at the same time it provides one of the most promising opportunities for the continent," said centre-right European People's Party (EPP) MEP Livia Járóka, who drafted the Parliament's resolution calling for the strategy.
The Hungarian MEP,who in June 2004 became the first Roma woman ever to be elected to the European Parliament, received the support of 576 colleagues at the EU assembly's plenary session in Strasbourg yesterday (9 March).
The text was endorsed by no less than 86% of the MEPs who took part in the vote, including almost all members of the centre-right (EPP) and liberal (ALDE) groups, as well as those on the left side of the hemicycle, such as the Socialists & Democrats and Green groups.
Only 32 members of far-right parties voted against the resolution, including the current and former leaders of France's Front National – Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen respectively.
According to VoteWatch.eu, 60 MEPs abstained, including all of the UK Conservatives and five members of Silvio Berlusconi's 'People of Freedom' (Il Popolo della Libertà) party.
The result of Wednesday's vote is living proof of the broad consensus that Járóka has been able to build since the beginning of last year, when she was given the task of drafting a report for the Parliament's committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs.
Roma excluded from 'basic human rights'
Speaking in Strasbourg before the vote, Járóka described how "a significant proportion of European Roma" are facing "substandard conditions almost totally disconnected from the economy, resulting in their exclusion from basic human rights".
"The EU-level effort to alleviate the poverty and social exclusion of the European Roma must therefore place its primary emphasis on the fulfilment and promotion of the fundamental rights to employment, housing, health care and education," she insisted.
The resolution adopted by the Parliament calls for an EU strategy on Roma inclusion that would lead to the introduction of "binding minimum standards at EU level" in relation to each of these key areas of social policy.
The text says that the EU strategy should be an "inclusive and multilevel action plan," and that it should be "prepared and implemented at all political and administrative levels".
The European Commission would be responsible for coordinating, supervising and monitoring the proposed strategy, evaluating the results and producing annual reports, with a regularly-updated scoreboard to show the progress being made in each of the member states.
According to Járóka, such an EU strategy must also take into account the territorial dimension of exclusion, recognising that "the geographical distribution of social disadvantages is not uniform throughout the member states".
"Poverty and social exclusion are concentrated in underdeveloped micro-regions, which in many of the new member states are predominantly inhabited by the Roma community," said the Hungarian.
The European Parliament is calling on member states to develop integrated policies in cooperation with representatives of the Roma population, making use of all the financial resources available from the various EU funds, such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD).
Járóka believes that part of the budget for the EU Cohesion Funds in the next period (2014-2020) should be set aside to provide resources and financial incentives, which could be allocated on a competitive basis to projects that promote the inclusion of Roma.
Responding to remarks by a number of MEPs, Commissioner Andor made clear his wish to adapt the European Social Fund so that it would focus more on supporting social inclusion and on helping to create employment opportunities for unskilled or low-skilled workers.
With regard to the role of the EU's Cohesion Policy, he promised that the Commisson would look carefully at the request from the Parliament to focus on the "territorial dimension of poverty" – including the particular needs of "underdeveloped micro-regions".
Not without civil society
Also speaking for the EU executive, Vice-President Viviane Reding described the integration of Roma as a "moral obligation" as well as "an economic interest".
Reding promised that the Commission's proposals for an EU framework for national Roma integration strategies would build on the ideas put forward by the Parliament, and also take account of contributions from different member states and from civil society.
"There is a need for concrete actions, for clear commitments, to make better use of the range of available legal and financial instruments, in order to achieve a breakthrough," said the Commission vice-president, who emphasised the role of the European Platform for Roma Inclusion, which was created in 2009, as providing "a unique mechanism for involving the stakeholders".
Presidency keeps issue in the spotlight
The Hungarian EU Presidency will host the fifth meeting of the European Platform for Roma Inclusion in Budapest on 7-8 April, which coincides with International Roma Day.
On 19 May, the Council of Ministers for employment, social policy, health and consumer affairs will meet in Gödöll? near Budapest, where they will be invited to adopt conclusions in response to the Commission's proposals on an EU framework for national Roma integration strategies.