The event, organised by EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimír Špidla, managed to attract a big audience but produced little in terms of policy initiatives.
Attendance at the first European Roma Summit yesterday (16 September) exceeded all expectations, with more than 500 representatives of EU institutions, member-state governments and civil society participating. But the event also highlighted differences between stakeholders.
In the morning session, it soon became clear that there was no consensus on the policy course to be followed. Calls for an EU framework strategy on Roma inclusion, supported by the EU Roma Policy Coalition and human rights NGOs, received a mixed reaction from policymakers at the event.
The idea of creating a Roma unit within the European Commission, modelled on a previously created Council of Europe division, drew contrasting responses from representatives of the French government, which currently holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, and the Czech government, which takes over in January.
Czech Minister for Human Rights and National Minorities Džamila Stehlíková welcomed the proposal, saying “the Czech Presidency will support the establishment of an EU Roma unit” at the Commission. But France’s Christine Boutin, the minister for housing and urban affairs, instead insisted that “it is not necessary to create new committees or policy instruments,” calling for efficient and effective use of existing tools.
Sharing Boutin’s view, Commissioner Špidla said “existing solutions are already designed for the long term” and said it was “irresponsible to think that the European Commission might develop a centralised approach from Brussels”.
Scathing criticism came in the afternoon session from Roma activist Rudko Kawczynski, who accused the organisers of lacking awareness of the issues at stake. “We have spent a whole day here without understanding the problem,” he said, “while Roma in this conference room are, at best, decoration”.
Kawczynski claimed that aid policies have created a myriad of self-referential Roma rights NGOs out of touch with the realities faced by Roma populations, who live in conditions “worse than in apartheid South Africa […] in many little Warsaw Ghettos”. “New actions are part of the problem, not the solution,” he concluded.
The atmosphere in the conference room became increasingly tense when Eugenia Maria Roccella, representing the Italian government, was booed as she started speaking by a small but vocal group of Roma activists. The group then left the room in a sign of protest against the Berlusconi executive’s plans to fingerprint Roma (EURACTIV 30/06/08).
Taking the floor, Shigeo Katsu, the World Bank’s vice president for Europe and Central Asia, offered a more positive perspective. Illustrating the evolution of a decade of funding by the World Bank in favour of Roma inclusion, he underlined that “some progress has been made”. However, he added, “we still have a long way to go. We need to push further and step up to the next level”.