Already at half-time of the Hungarian Presidency, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle congratulated his Hungarian counterpart, Mr. János Martonyi, on the occasion of his visit to Berlin: “Europe has made major progress in key areas, during the first Hungarian EU Presidency.” This success of the Presidency has continued through the second half – amid a variety of challenges. Specifically, the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) adopted conclusions on an EU framework for national Roma integration strategies on 19 May, removing a major hurdle to the political endorsement of the conclusions by the European Council on 24 June 2011.
This has enabled the Hungarian Presidency to address an urgent political, economic, social and societal issue facing the citizens of Europe. The challenges are powerful: EU Member States are home to an estimated eight to twelve million Roma people. Their average life expectancy is ten years less than the EU average. Roma often live in great poverty and are victims of discrimination and social exclusion. The massive kick-start given to previous EU efforts to integrate Roma is Hungary’s greatest merit, a response to a most central concern for people. Hungary has proven that the rotating EU Council Presidency is in a position, even after the Lisbon Treaty came into force, to set its own priorities into the European agenda and to work successfully on its implementation.
A brief look back upon this particular success story: the Hungarian EU Presidency took up the cause of European citizens’ needs. It declared the social and economic integration of Roma to be one of its most important tasks, in cooperation with European institutions and civil society. On 5 April 2011, the European Commission released a communication under the title, ‘An EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020’, which was aimed to create a coordinated instrument for the needs of Roma and for focusing resource management. In a further step at the EPSCO Council on 19 May 2011, the employment and social ministers committed to improving Roma integration, in order to attain the Europe 2020 Strategy’s goals of a higher rate of employment and a reduction of poverty. In addition, the ministers have announced their intention to develop national Roma strategies or other appropriate measures, for their integration by the end of 2011, primarily in the fields of education, employment, health care and housing. The Conclusions have invited the European Commission to make an active contribution to the implementation of national Roma strategies, as well as to simplify access to the Structural Funds. The Hungarian Presidency intends to present a report to the European Council on the Council’s deliberations on 24 June 2011.
Germany has welcomed the elaboration of a European framework for national Roma strategies from the beginning. The struggle against poverty, social exclusion and discrimination against the Roma minority, is a very important concern for us as well. We stand with the ban on discrimination of ethnic minorities, as well as with the recognition of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and of the applicable EU law. We have also endorsed a reinforced EU engagement, in order to support Member States in their national endeavours and to encourage cooperation among them. Nonetheless, the responsibility for the social and economic integration of Roma remains a national competence, given the considerable differences in the fundamental national conditions and the proportion of Roma populations in Member States. The existing EU instruments (e.g., Structural Funds) and measures (e.g., Europe 2020 Strategy), can be used for this purpose.
I am convinced that the successful adoption of the Roma Framework Strategy will contribute considerably to a positive impression of the Hungarian EU Presidency. The integration of Roma affects us all, both old and young, whether in Hungary, Germany or anywhere else in Europe. It is an investment in our common future, which has no alternative.
Not long ago I visited an event at the German School in Budapest, where the German and Hungarian pupils discussed the Roma Framework Strategy, with the responsible Hungarian Minister of State Zoltán Balog and former Foreign Minister Péter Balázs. I was impressed to see the pupils’ involvement and the appeal of the topic for them. This inspired confidence in me. Every politically, economically and socially integrated minority, wherever in the world it may be, represents an enrichment of society at large, in many aspects. The EU Roma Framework Strategy, which has been strongly promoted throughout the Hungarian Presidency, will make an important contribution to this.