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European Roma Summit – an opportunity missed

1 October 2008

Snjezana Bokulic, MRG’s Europe and Central Asia Programmes Coordinator, writes on the ‘missed opportunity’ at the recent historic EU Roma summit organised by the European Commission in Brussels

A historic event took place in Brussels on 16 September – the European Commission organized the European Roma Summit, a high-level meeting on Roma in the European Union, the first of its kind, as the organizers were pleased to stress.

In his opening speech, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso very vividly described the plight of Roma in Europe. He talked of the exclusion, discrimination and racism faced by Roma communities, their limited access to mainstream education, jobs and housing. He was, nevertheless, eager to qualify the role of Brussels. “Dramatic situation of the Roma,” he said, “cannot be solved from Brussels.” Then he raised the stakes as regards the expectations for the meeting. This summit, he said, was to be “much more than just another meeting.” It turned out it wasn’t.

In spite of some high-level speakers who, in addition to Barroso, included Vladimir Spidla, Commissioner for Employment, Social affairs and Equal Opportunities, Jan Fiegel, Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, Jacques Barrot, Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, as well as George Soros, the American businessman and philanthropist, the conference offered little novelty and even fewer concrete points. It was a sort of déjà vu – we’ve heard it all many and many times over, the sombre criticism, praise, and when it was due, self-criticism, as well as the emotional and controversial views.

In short, the conference was a disappointment.

One of the major human rights violations currently underway in one of the founding member states of the European Union – Italy’s intended practice to fingerprint Roma communities in camps and settlements – remained on the sidelines, in spite of the attempts of the European Roma Policy Coalition, a Brussels-based NGO initiative, to bring the issue to the attention of the audience. In the middle of Barroso’s speech, Coalition members stood up, one by one, holding or wearing T-shirts with a message condemning ethnic profiling. Barroso acknowledged them, expressed his support for their position, yet the conference failed to discuss in concrete terms and condemn this gross abuse of fundamental human rights, yet another indication of racism and discrimination which Roma communities face in every day life, not only in Italy. A range of speakers followed, from governments and civil society, including Roma civil society. Yet the course of the meeting allowed for little to no discussion, no dialogue between the ‘high-level’ and European Roma took place in reality. Even the agenda dodged the real issue – the urgently needed discussion of the obligations and responsibility of the European Union and its member states when it comes to the respect of the rights of European Roma.

So what difference is this conference likely to make in the lives of the Roma in Europe? Minimal to none in my modest opinion. It was more of the same, preaching to the converted yet again. What I would have liked to see is high-level decision makers attending the conference, actively participating and staying throughout and until the end. Commission officials and competent representatives of the national governments of the member states publicly committing themselves and the institutions they represent to specific actions they will undertake following the conference. Commissioners Spidla and Figel and, most importantly perhaps given the flagrant violations of human rights of the Roma in Italy, Vice-President Barrot who is in charge of justice and home affairs, spelling out publicly what the top bureaucrats in Brussels will do for the benefit of Roma. High-level representatives of national governments pledging specific actions aiming at ending discrimination, social inclusion and racism against the Roma in their countries. These pledges and actions would have been negotiated jointly with the Roma communities and Roma civil society in advance of the conference. A system for monitoring the implementation of the pledges would have been put in place following the conference to hold the Commission and the governments to account. As it was, the conference remained a talking shop, albeit a high level one. Another opportunity lost, what a shame. How many more opportunities to end discrimination and social exclusion of its Roma population can the EU afford to lose?

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.