The Hungarian Presidency intends to make Roma inclusion a common European cause, and for that, purpose Minister of State for Social Inclusion, Zoltán Balog, plans to adopt a common policy declaration. As the first step of the process, in the fifth meeting of the European Roma Platform, the European Commission will present its statement on the framework strategy, where a wide range of stakeholders will be able to comment on the document.
The Commission and the Presidency will hold the 5th meeting of the European Roma Platform on 7-8 April. What is the purpose of the event?
The Roma Platform is an international meeting, where every stakeholder of the Roma integration is represented, including NGOs, advocates of human and minority rights, Roma experts, and official authorities of Member States, and large European bodies, such as the European Parliament, the Commission, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It will not take place in Brussels, as we have invited participants to Hungary. This meeting of the Platform is special, because it will be the first time that the Council, the Presidency and all other actors, will have a chance to comment on the draft, prepared by the European Commission on the framework strategy of Roma inclusion.
As opposed to former practices, we have invited a much wider group than just experts; and both the Prime Minister and the Vice-President of the Commission will give a speech emphasising our aim to elevate these matters to a European level.
With the exception of the Council, every EU institution has adopted its position on the European Roma strategy. The European Parliament has chosen to adopt a uniform strategy, obligatory in certain elements; while the Commission was in favour of a less regulated strategy, defining only the framework. What are the Hungarian Presidency’s ideas in this question?
We would also like to see obligatory provisions; however, the adoption will require the consent of every Member State. The European reconciliation procedure can easily weaken the document. We are heading down a narrow path. Our purpose is to retain as many specific elements in the wording as possible, and to create a draft that is acceptable for all 27 Member States. We have already made our own contribution for this. In January, we created a document in which we present our thoughts on Roma inclusion, and we have delivered it to the European stakeholders for inspection.
As many as four bodies of the Council will discuss the framework strategy, but the conclusions will be formulated by the ministers for employment and social affairs. Is this a message from the Presidency, that the problems of Roma are addressed only from the social side?
An interesting duality can be seen here, the preparation of the framework strategy is the responsibility of the Commissioners for Justice and Home Affairs; while in the Council, we will discuss them within the Employment and Social Affairs Council. I welcome this duality, because the same is present in the problem itself. On the one hand, the acceptance and inclusion of Roma is partly a human rights, partly a law-and-order issue, on the other hand, it is most certainly an economic-social matter as well. This renders discussion to be more difficult, because it makes it easier to dodge responsibility, by saying that the area has several owners, but in my opinion, it still conveys the message that the two areas are related.
There have been a number of initiatives and proposals on Roma inclusion. How far will this Council-approved strategy be feasible? Will there be any feedback or verification mechanism put in place?
The statement itself proposes the implementation of a verification mechanism; nevertheless, this is going to be a policy statement approved by Member States. This means they will assume political and not legal responsibility. And this makes a difference. A political statement cannot be enforced through sanctions, but anyone who takes their work and partners seriously, will obviously do their utmost to keep to their agreement. There is an intense ongoing debate on the content of the final text, which shows that Member States take their responsibilities very seriously.
We have a long and difficult road ahead of us, so adopting the declaration will be a real breakthrough for Hungary as well; because we have taken this issue as a priority. The Commission’s statement includes a three-page list of earlier European positions and proposals on the issue. The fact that every Member State will sign the policy statement brings European Roma policy into a new light, and this issue will no longer be easy to sweep aside.
Implementation too will be a meticulous task. We will not be starting from scratch, as there are, and have been many positive examples of co-existence between Hungarian and Roma communities, as well as in other European countries. It is not that we have had it all bad and now we are trying to fix it. It is easy for anyone to cite negative examples, but our task is to call attention on the good ones.
How can we ensure that Roma integration in the labour market remains at the forefront of EU policy making in the long run?
If Member States realise that labour market integration will potentially bring them economic benefits – we are talking about 10-12 million people here – this could be a strong incentive. In Hungary alone 85 percent, while in Europe 50-60 percent of Roma are outside regular employment. Bringing part of them back into the labour market will stimulate economic growth in the medium term. If we cannot increase employment among Roma, they will have to rely on social benefits, which will seriously strain the budgets of European countries. I believe that this economic necessity will be strong enough to encourage EU Member States to take this strategy seriously.
Which Member States are affected the most? Which country has achieved the most in inclusion?
Almost every Member State has Roma population in different percentages. I would say even countries, which have not had any issues with Roma inclusion, could benefit from adopting the strategy; because this could easily become an issue later on. If we can’t achieve peaceful co-existence as well as economic and social integration locally, some of these people will relocate. Therefore, Europe is jointly responsible for integration, even countries that are not directly affected now. France, Spain, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary all have large Roma communities, and most of these countries are involved in the Decade of Roma Inclusion initiative. West Balkan countries are looking to gain EU membership, and they have Roma population too. The most successful member, is generally said to be Spain, which has a long-running tradition in Roma inclusion, which started in the 1930s. Spain is our biggest supporter, because it has already realised the weight of this issue.