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European Commission prods on Roma strategies

CAUTIOUS enthusiasm accompanies the European Commission’s recently issued framework document setting out priorities for tackling problems of Roma living in Europe. It certainly does not promise to turn Slovakia’s Roma shantytowns into model communities overnight but Roma human rights activists call it a first step towards more concerted effort by countries of the European Union.

The EC says all Roma children should at least finish primary school.(Source: Sme - P. Funtál)

CAUTIOUS enthusiasm accompanies the European Commission’s recently issued framework document setting out priorities for tackling problems of Roma living in Europe. It certainly does not promise to turn Slovakia’s Roma shantytowns into model communities overnight but Roma human rights activists call it a first step towards more concerted effort by countries of the European Union.

On April 5, shortly before International Romani Day celebrated on April 8, the European Commission released its European Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, with the aim “to guide national Roma policies and mobilise funds available at EU level to support inclusion efforts”.

More than 11 million Roma are estimated to be living in Europe, according to data from the Council of Europe’s Roma and Travellers Division, and more than half of them live in countries which are members of the EU. It is estimated that Slovakia has around 500,000 Roma citizens. It is generally acknowledged that Roma in Europe live in considerably worse socio-economic conditions than other Europeans and face discrimination in the job market as well as in other aspects of society.

“Despite some good intentions from national politicians, too little has changed in the lives of most Roma over the last few years,” said Viviane Reding, justice commissioner and vice president of the EC. “Member states have a joint responsibility to put an end to Roma exclusion.”

Education spotlighted

Corresponding with the EU’s broader Europe 2020 targets for employment, social inclusion and education, the newly announced framework focuses on four priorities: education, employment, health care and housing, and calls on member states to set individual national Roma integration goals based on the Roma population in each country, and their current socio-economic starting point.

“All of the priority areas are relevant to Slovakia and they are interlinked,” Rob Kushen, the executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest, told The Slovak Spectator, but at the same time he particularly highlighted the area of education.

“Educational outcomes for Romani children in Slovakia are terrible,” Kushen said, explaining that Roma children are routinely and illegally shunted into special education programmes. “Without an education, Romani children will not be able to get jobs and will not be able to contribute to the Slovak economy and society.”

According to a survey in six EU countries, including Slovakia, only 42 percent of Roma children complete primary school, compared to an EU average of 97.5 percent, and attendance by Roma students in secondary education programmes across these six countries is estimated at only 10 percent.

“Most important to me is that member states help ensure that all Roma children complete at least primary school,” Commissioner Reding said at the presentation of the framework document.

The role of the EU

NGOs working with Roma communities welcome the framework document because it makes the EU’s role in dealing with Roma inclusion clearer.

“It’s clear that the EC doesn’t want to take up the role of solving Roma problems, and it wouldn’t even be right because it would only deepen the alibis of member states who could then say ‘it’s up to Brussels’,” Laco Oravec from the Milan Šimečka Foundation told The Slovak Spectator.

But the EU provides significant financial resources to member states to address the problems of Roma and many people inside and outside government institutions have raised concerns about how effectively these resources have been used.

“There was a need for some kind of glue or something that would strengthen the position of the EC in solving Roma issues on the national level,” Oravec said, adding that the symbolic importance of the document is that it puts more weight on Roma problems, making the issue one of the key priorities of the EU.

The ERRC’s Kushen believes the framework is a step in the right direction, but that on its own it is inadequate.

“The reason an EU strategy is needed is because Roma exclusion is an EU problem: exclusion stems from violations of EU law and the free movement of Roma across member-state borders means that poverty and human rights violations in, for example, Romania have a direct bearing on France,” he said.

Kushen reiterated that the primary responsibility for dealing with discrimination faced by Roma should rest with the member states but said the EU undoubtedly has a role: to enforce EU law and to sanction states for violations of the Race Equality Directive and the Free Movement Directive; to provide funding for Roma inclusion initiatives; and to make sure that EU bureaucracy does not stand in the way of EU funds being used effectively.

National reports – an effective tool?

Criticism of the framework document has already surfaced, with critics saying it is too brief and vague and that it does not deal effectively with discrimination, prejudice and women empowerment issues.

“It is positive that the EC has the tendency to set out very clear and measurable aims for the member states, but these are only small pieces of a big mosaic,” Oravec said.

Under the European Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, member states must submit national Roma strategies by the end of 2011 specifying how they will contribute to the achievement of the goals of the document.

Member states must also appoint national contact points to manage, monitor and report on the implementation of their Roma integration strategy. The EC will issue annual reports on whether progress has been made.

Depending on national strategies as the main remedial tool might not be very effective, according to Oravec, who said national governments will not find it difficult to just put strategies on paper.

“I am sceptical whether this will not just be a formal tool, easy to report,” Oravec stated.

Slovakia’s Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities has already said that submitting national action plans for Roma integration will not be a problem since the country is currently revising its national action plans for the Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005-2015, a regional initiative underpinned by the Open Society Foundation and the World Bank.

“In the strategy that the EC expects from us we will take account of the actualised national action plans for the Decade,” Iveta Duchoňová, the office’s spokesperson, told The Slovak Spectator.

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