Living conditions for Europe’s Roma are worsening and all European states, including western ones, are responsible for changing that, says László Andor, the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.
‘The discrimination and social exclusion of Roma… is simply getting worse,” says Andor
László Andor, the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion believes living conditions for Europe’s Roma are getting worse, rather than improving.
Following high profile deportations of Roma migrants from France, Belgium and Finland, many believe the Roma are not the responsibility of western European Union member states.
Andor answered some questions over email about the Roma population’s welfare and why integrating Roma “is a European challenge and requires a European response”.
Given there have already been several initiatives to promote Roma-inclusive policies in Europe - such as the Roma Decade and various other EC/EU programmes - why do you think they have failed to improve the lot of Roma to date?
The discrimination and social exclusion of Roma is a long-standing and complex problem and their situation is simply getting worse. The European Commission has been working for many years on issues relating to the integration of Roma people. They face specific challenges and even more so today.
For example, in Bulgaria, the economic crisis has mainly affected the low-skilled, who currently account for almost 70% of the unemployed. Roma make up a large percentage of this group.
The early school-leaving rate, which was 14.7% in 2009, is close to the EU average, but is particularly high among Roma. The Open Society Institute put it at 43% in 2008.
To improve the situation of the Roma people requires political determination, considerable resources, state-of-the art design of programmes, close cooperation between stakeholders, and time.
What concrete measures should be undertaken to fight Roma social and economic exclusion?
It is not realistic to expect that the situation of Roma can be tackled overnight. At the same time, it is clear that we need action now. Events in France last summer really put the media spotlight on the challenges facing Roma people and the Hungarian Presidency has put the situation of Roma top of the EU agenda.
The commission has followed up and presented in April this year a new EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. I am confident it will be successful.
What makes you believe that it will succeed?
First, there is a broad consensus among stakeholders, including the European Parliament and [EU] member states, on the need for action. The commission's proposals have been backed unanimously by ministers. That means that all 27 member states are behind this initiative.
Second, our work on Roma is part of a wider policy framework to achieve inclusive growth and fight social exclusion.
The new framework is not a one-off initiative. We will regularly assess progress made. A key feature of our new framework is its comprehensive approach encompassing employment, education, healthcare and housing. I am convinced that member states understand that there are high expectations that their policies will have to meet.
Third, I am optimistic that the next generation of EU funded programmes, including the future European Social Fund, ESF, will have a strong focus on social inclusion and this is an excellent basis to support member states also in their efforts to improve the socio-economic situation of Roma.
What can you, as commissioner, and the commission at large do to further influence nation states' Roma policies - both in terms of funding and political/legislative work?
First of all, I don't think this is about influence but about finding effective policy solutions. The ultimate goal is to improve the situation of the Roma. We must not forget that the responsibility to design and carry out Roma integration policies lies primarily with member states – and the commission fully respects this.
Second, our role is to support national efforts in different ways. One important area is mutual learning. EU level peer-reviews and the monitoring the implementation of national strategies help member states to check whether they are on track.
Another important way is through funding. For example through the ESF we can mobilise national funding and set up a dialogue between national and regional stakeholders and the commission.
How much money do the European institutions spend on Roma inclusion and other Roma projects - housing, health, employment and education?
Concrete amounts of EU funds specifically allocated to Roma are hard to quantify. There is no budget line for Roma people as efforts for their integration are part of our overall EU efforts to reduce poverty.
Since May 2010, the rules to use money from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) have been changed, which makes it easier to ask for EU funding for projects to help minority groups, like Roma, to get a house.
In addition, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) has been used by some member states to further the integration of Roma.
In which countries, and on which projects, is the money spent?
According to an analysis of the ESF 2007-2013, ESF operational programmes in 12 member states - Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Spain, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia - target Roma, among other vulnerable groups.
Overall, these countries have allocated a total budget of €17.5 billion (including €13.3 billion of ESF funds) to measures benefiting Roma and other vulnerable groups.
This represents 27% of their total European Social Fund budget. Five countries also specifically dedicated a total of €172m solely for Roma integration - Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia.
You said the commission's key target areas for Roma inclusion are education, employment, housing, health - how do you intend to tackle these areas and how will you measure success?
The commission will not prescribe how member states should design their policies, programmes and projects. The differences among member states are, by the way, too significant to go for a "one size fits all" solution.
It is up to member states to set out their ambitions, objectives and targets as well as the means to achieve them, in their national strategies.
Otherwise, the EU's approach to increasing employment, promoting education and fighting poverty has been spelled out in detail in the Europe 2020's Integrated Guidelines. The philosophy of Europe 2020 with its focus on inclusive growth perfectly applies to Roma.
How are you going to monitor the implementation of the EU framework strategies?
A key challenge for measuring progress is the availability of reliable data. Therefore, member states need to make an effort to put in place robust monitoring mechanisms at their level.
In addition, the commission will seek to improve data availability and work together with the Fundamental Rights Agency to carry out surveys.
Some in western Europe believe it's not their responsibility to fund inclusion efforts for migrant Roma - for example, the French deportations that have been echoed in Belgium and Finland. Are they right?
Integrating the Roma people is a European challenge and requires a European response.
Our work for Roma is part of a larger agenda to fight poverty and social exclusion. Programmes should not target Roma exclusively – but where appropriate address their situation explicitly.
Fighting poverty is a European challenge, so each member state has a responsibility and Roma are one of the largest and most visible groups suffering from social exclusion and their situation is not only difficult but is worsening – that's why we need to reverse this trend urgently.
Member states must now implement the new EU framework vigorously.
This question and answer was produced by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative, established and supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.
Nikoleta Popkostadinova from Sofia, Bulgaria, is a freelance journalist specializing in social affairs. She has worked as a reporter for the Bulgarian weekly Capital and Transitions Online, and as an editor for the monthly magazine Vice
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