Commission wants Roma kids at school

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Making sure that all Roma children go to school is a top priority for the European Commission, which presented proposals yesterday (5 April) for each EU member state to develop a national strategy for Roma integration by the end of the year.

National strategies should include specific targets and measures for increasing Roma people's access to education, employment, health care, housing and essential services, the Commission said.

The aim is to bridge the huge gaps that currently exist between the Roma community and the rest of the population, especially in countries where Roma live in significant numbers – Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Greece.

Problems with Roma integration came to the fore last summer when France cracked down on illegal Roma camps, leading to a clash between the French government and the European Commission.

Speaking in Strasbourg on Tuesday (5 April), Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner in charge of justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, told journalists why access to education was chosen as the top priority.

"Surveys show that in some member states, only about 42% of Roma children complete primary school. The European average is 97%. Our goal is to ensure that every Roma child completes primary school at the very least," said Reding.

More than a third of the Roma community comprises children under 15 years of age, while less than one sixth of the overall population is this young.

"If we want to solve the problem for the next generation, then the current generation of Roma kids has to go to school," said the Commission vice-president, admitting that this was "easier said than done". 

Reding referred to a joint initiative that the Commission is supporting together with the Council of Europe, with the aim of training 1,000 mediators to facilitate communication and dialogue between Roma communities and public authorities in different European countries.

The Luxembourger said the Commission wanted to give Roma communities and national authorities "a helping hand" in  identifying problems and working together on implementing effective solutions, taking the specific situations of each country into account.

National governments will have their chance to discuss the Commission's proposals at forthcoming meetings of ministers dealing with social affairs and education.

EU leaders are expected to adopt conclusions on Roma integration at their summit in Brussels on 24 June.

Closing the employment gap

On employment, the Commission points to research conducted by the World Bank, which estimated that the full integration of Roma into the labour market would bring about significant economic benefits, which in some countries could amount to millions of euros per week.

"If you bring people into the labour force, this improves productivity, cuts welfare bills and boosts tax revenues," explained Reding.

When it comes to health, Europe's Roma suffer from much higher childhood mortality rates and lower life expectancy than the rest of the population.

The Commission believes that poor health among Roma is linked to insufficient access to adequate housing, together with basic amenities like electricity and clean drinking water.

Member states will therefore be expected to set national targets for ensuring access to quality health care and improving the living conditions of Roma communities.

Improving the use of EU funds

The Commission has promised to work with national and regional authorities to make better use of EU funds for financing actions and initiatives that directly benefit the Roma population.

According to Vice-President Reding: "At the EU level, there are €25.6 billion of funds which could be utilised to support Roma integration strategies in the member states."

However, she told journalists that less than 5% of this money (around €100 million) had already been earmarked for measures that benefit Roma people.

"It is also very clear to see that 70% of the money which is available for helping to set up the structures for grassroots work has not been used," Reding said.

She admitted that "funding alone cannot solve the situation" and spoke of the need for enhanced political commitment by political decision-makers at local, national and European level.

László Andor, the EU commissioner responsible for employment, social policy and inclusion, said there was significant scope for improving the functioning of the EU's structural funds in order to make a greater impact in terms of Roma integration.

"Developing better programmes is particularly the duty of the member states and the regional authorities, those who design how the structural funds are being used on the ground," said Andor.

The commissioner said that the regulations for the next period of structural funds should be drafted in such a way as to provide "greater room" for projects targeting Roma integration.

He said that this would mean making greater efforts to simplify the procedures involved in applying for EU funds, and also to strengthen the capacity of civil society organisations representing Roma.

Link with 'Europe 2020' framework

Andor emphasised that the Commission's support for national strategies in favour of Roma integration should be seen in the context of the overall framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which was adopted by the European Council in June 2010.

He mentioned in particular the target of reducing the number of people living in poverty by 20 million across the whole of the EU, and noted that while the average poverty rate for the whole of the EU was around 17%, the poverty rate for Roma was at least four times higher than this.

"It's not just lower living standards but also very difficult coexistence and relations in general between the Roma minorities and the mainstream society which we have to observe and we have to turn around if we want to improve the situation," said Andor.

The commissioner said that the framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy would "guarantee that there is adequate and robust monitoring of the developments every year".

He referred to the flagship initiatives being developed at EU level to address unemployment and poverty, and said that both of these explicitly recognised the need to improve the opportunities available to members of Roma communities.

"Now we have to make sure that in the Europe 2020 strategy and also in the national reform programmes, the member states are explicit and the Roma strategies will connect with the 2020 monitoring," stressed Andor.

'No tolerance for racism' – Andor

Commissioner Andor was asked to comment on the activities of the extreme-right Jobbik party in Hungary, which has been accused of encouraging violence against Roma.

"The rise of certain xenophobic and sometimes explicitly racist tendencies in recent years, also in Hungary, is a major concern, and it undermines the social and political stability in certain neighbourhoods and certain regions," he said.

"Of course this has to be confronted. I think in a democratic system which is based on human rights, there can be no tolerance for racism," the Hungarian commissioner stated.

"We must work to eliminate such danger, which can also be life threatening," he added.

Hungarian MEP Lívia Járóka (European People's Party), who drafted the European Parliament's recent report on Roma integration, welcomed the Commission's proposals, which include many of the recommendations set out in her report. "The document is of course not flawless and could be much bolder in many ways, but it is a considerable step in the right direction," she said.

"From now on, it will be up to the member states to make their pledges by adopting the strategy and to realise these goals under the scrutiny of the Parliament and the Commission," added Járóka, who is currently the only MEP of Roma origin.

"This Friday, we will celebrate the 40th International Roma Day in Budapest at the fifth session of the European Roma Platform, and I believe that this anniversary will mark a milestone in the process of developing an EU-coordinated and locally-implemented action plan for the social inclusion of Roma."

UK Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope (European Conservatives and Reformists) was less positive about the Commission's proposals. "I fear that that the Commission may be acting ultra vires, in a manner that is detrimental to the rights of member states to determine their own education, health and housing policies," he said.

"The rights of the Roma people are extremely important and we should encourage all EU governments to promote better integration. However, I'm very worried that this is a slippery slope towards the EU interfering in areas that are predominantly the preserve of national governments," he continued.

"Commissioner Reding needs to go back to basics with this strategy. The focus is wrong. There is much that the EU can do within its powers without treading on the sovereignty of national governments," he insisted.

Hungarian MEP Kinga Göncz (Socialists & Democrats) criticised the European Commission for not going far enough in proposing action to address the problems facing Roma communities. "This proposed strategy doesn't address a number of issues which are key if we want to deliver an effective EU Roma strategy," she complained.

The MEP regretted the lack of detail on how the EU's structural funds could be used to finance projects that benefit Roma communities. "There are no specific proposals on how to amend the cohesion fund rules in order to ensure that they also serve to improve Roma living conditions and eliminate their segregation," she said.

Göncz called for action to confront the hatred and violence being spread by racist and xenophobic groups, notably in Hungary. "Jobbik's anti-Roma militia and other similar groups would be almost untouched by this strategy," she insisted.

Speaking for the Greens, French MEP Hélène Flautre welcomed the proposed EU framework as "an important step forward," but also criticised what she called the Commission's "failure to put a central focus on the need to tackle discrimination".

"While member states are left to come forward with their own strategies, it is crucial for the Commission to remain vigilant in its role as guarantor of the treaties, and the fundamental rights set out in the treaties, as well as in enforcing applicable EU legislation," said Flautre.

"The recent anti-Roma activities by right-wing groups in Hungary, and the failure of the government to intervene, have underlined the fact that Roma discrimination remains a serious problem in the EU," she added.

German leftist MEP Cornelia Ernst (GUE/NGL) complained that the Commission had not adequately dealt with issues such as fundamental rights, non-discrimination, free movement and the fight against anti-Roma prejudice.

"As long as we do not fight the widespread hostility against Roma and as long as there is no change in the situation of Roma people and if, in addition, the member states do not put the strategy into practice, the whole plan remains a toothless tiger because no sanctions are provided," she said.

Hungarian Minister of State for EU Affairs Enik? Gy?ri, representing the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, welcomed the Commission's proposal.

She said the proposal would be discussed by national governments in no less than four different ministerial meetings at EU level, and also at the European Council in June. She insisted that the national strategies for Roma integration would also help member states to reach the goals of the 'Europe 2020' strategy.

"Given the current economic and demographic situation, the promotion of the economic and social status of the Roma can open up new human resources, thus contributing to economic growth in the long term," she said.

The European Roma Policy Coalition (ERPC), which brings together 10 civil society organisations, said that the Commission's proposals represent "a significant step forward," while also complaining that "the Framework falls far short of fully tackling the challenges of Roma exclusion, which are intimately linked to widespread hostility and discrimination against the Roma people".

According to a joint statement: "The ERPC is deeply disappointed that while the Framework recognizes the need to fight discrimination against Roma and ensure their equal access to all fundamental rights, it fails to specify measures to combat discrimination, intimidation, anti-Gypsyism, hate speech or violence against Roma."

The ERPC is calling on the Commission to pay close attention to how member states facilitate the active participation of Roma in their national strategies for Roma integration.

The term 'Roma' refers to a variety of groups of people who describe themselves as Roma, Gypsies, Travellers, Manouches, Ashkali and Sinti, as well as other titles.

Roma are recognised as being the biggest ethnic minority in the European Union, numbering between six and seven million people (mostly EU citizens) living across all 27 member states.

Members of the Roma minority face discrimination and social exclusion, based on racial prejudice and negative stereotyping, which in some cases has been spread by politicians and the mass media.

The result of this discrimination and exclusion is that Roma are more likely to be affected by poverty and unemployment, as well as low education levels and poor housing conditions.

On 7 April 2010, the European Commission adopted a communication on the social and economic integration of Roma in Europe.

  • 7-8 April: 5th meeting of European Platform for Roma Inclusion in Budapest.
  • 19 May: Council of Ministers for employment, social policy, health and consumer affairs to meet in Gödöll? (Hungary).
  • 23 May: Foreign ministers to discuss conclusions at General Affairs Council meeting in Brussels.
  • 24 June: EU leaders expected to adopt conclusions on Roma integration at summit in Brussels.

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