Written by Branislav STANICEK.
The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) held a round table on the new Roma strategy for equality, inclusion and participation on 1 June 2021.This event was part of the regular EPRS policy series, and was a follow-up to the seminar held last year with Vice-President Lívia Járóka (NI, Hungary) who is responsible for the Western Balkans and a member of the High-Level Group on Gender Equality and Diversity. The event marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of Lívia Járóka’s report entitled Situation of Roma women in the European Union (adopted 1 June 2006).
In his welcome speech, Director of the EPRS Members’ Research Service Etienne Bassot recalled that the EU Roma Strategic Framework for Equality, Inclusion and Participation was adopted by the European Commission on 7 October 2020. The new Roma strategy was endorsed not only by the European Union but also by all Western Balkan countries at the ministerial meeting in Tirana, Albania on 27 October 2020. The ministerial meeting was a follow-up to the 2019 Poznan meeting and declaration on Roma integration in the EU enlargement process.
The new Roma strategy proposes seven qualitative and quantitative targets for 2030. Three of these objectives are horizontal in the areas of equality, inclusion and participation. The other four are sectoral objectives in the areas of education, employment, housing and health. The European Commission requires the Fundamental Rights Agency to conduct surveys and assess the situation, both in the EU and Balkan countries. In 2021, the survey will be extended to Serbia and North Macedonia.
Vice-President Lívia Járóka, the first Roma ever elected to the European Parliament, stated in her keynote speech that human rights and inclusion for all citizens should remain a cross-cutting priority both for the European Union and Western Balkan countries. Roma participation in some countries remains fragile, and the situation was aggravated during the Covid‑19 pandemic. She also recalled the important role played by the Roma in European culture and emphasised the need for increased Roma political participation, in particular by Roma women. Alongside increased political participation, better and positive media coverage would be highly beneficial.
Sónia Pereira, Portugal’s High Commissioner for Migration responsible for the Roma communities integration strategy and President of the Management Board of the High Commission for Migration, presented the views of the Portuguese Presidency to the European Council. She reviewed the successful adoption of the strategic framework in March 2021, as well as the Portuguese Presidency conference ‘Working together for Roma rights’ held in April 2021. Roma rights are a cornerstone of social rights, and the combat against hate speech and anti-gypsiysm should be taken up by all citizens. Finally, she stressed that the new framework should be implemented in line with multilevel governance, together with regions and cities, respecting the subsidiarity principle.
Marta Garcia Fidalgo, advisor for the coordination of Roma policies and Equality Coordinator at the European Commission (DG NEAR), presented the Roma situation in the Western Balkans accession countries. She noted that, considering that the Roma’s status in the Western Balkans has hardly improved in the last 20 years, despite considerable financial investment by the EU, the new strategic framework is important to Roma equality and participation. The Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) includes the financing of Roma inclusion projects. It is important that references to Roma employment and social inclusion be retained in the new Investment Plan for the Western Balkans adopted last October.
Beata Bislim Olahova, advisor on Roma and Sinti issues at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), presented the social and economic situation of the Roma, as well as their political participation within the OSCE countries. The European Commission recognises that the high NEET rate (not in employment, education or training) among Roma in the EU is a problem. The Commission therefore set an objective to cut the gap in the NEET rate by at least half. Currently the NEET rate among Roma in the EU is 62 %, compared to 10 % among the general population.
Some Roma face double difficulties as they live in poor regions and disadvantaged communities. Marja Eronen, chief coordinator of the International Romani Union in Finland, described the social challenges that the Roma population is facing in Europe. Low schooling rates and frequent premature school leaving, crowded housing and insufficient health care are among the main challenges. Participation in the labour market and social inclusion are fundamental for improving the living conditions of Roma in Europe. She also described the role of the Roma ombudsman in Finland.
Finally, Branislav Stanicek, policy analyst for the External Policies Unit at the EPRS, spoke about the need for accurate data on the Roma population for better policy-making. He pointed to some successful projects, such as the Atlas of Roma Communities, initiated by Iveta Radičová, former Prime Minister of Slovakia, and currently being developed by Ábel Ravasz, former governmental envoy for Roma communities in Slovakia. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe might also better share their best practices with the accession countries of the Western Balkans. Finally, he noted the fact that Roma rights are placed within the first negotiations policy cluster of ‘fundamentals’, establishing the central role of this policy for EU accession of the Balkan countries.