Gabriela Hrabaňová: The EP elections will influence our lives
Why should we vote in the European Parliament elections? Because each election directly influences our lives.
The European Union decides many important matters in our society. Subjects discussed there that may seem to have no bearing on us eventually reach us all the same - such as the ban on smoking in public spaces, price ceilings on roaming services, or regulations about single-use plastics.
This applies to the area of human rights as well. Whether education systems in Europe will be segregated or whether there will be more job opportunities greatly depends on whether not just our own governments, but also the European Parliament becomes more politically radical, or whether those institutions will rather focus on humanitarian and social concerns.
If we don't go to the polls, we are giving the extremists a chance. They always vote.
Developments in the field of EU policy, while they may seem distant from the actual problems we are grappling with, naturally touch on different areas of life and on various minorities, Romani people included. The European Parliament has taken a very strong position against the phenomenon of antigypsyism.
The EP has already adopted several resolutions, such as last October's on the rise of neo-Fascist violence in Europe, followed in February 2019 by the resolution on the need for a strengthened post-2020 Strategic EU Framework for National Roma Inclusion Strategies and stepping up the fight against anti-Gypsyism. All it takes is to search the term "antigypsyism" online to see how many comments, documents and questions appear on this subject.
It is true that groups of MEPs and individual members can still be found on the floor of the European Parliament who are racists. The President of the EP, Antonio Tajani, has himself made more than one very racist statement.
At the same time, however, a large group of MEPs are seated there with whom it is possible to communicate and cooperate. They are also open to nonprofit organizations, taking on board the subjects we are interested in and relying on our experience and expertise.
A hidden barrier
I personally very much welcome the European Parliament's focus on antigypsyism, because I consider this phenomenon to be one of the biggest problems of Romani people's everyday lives in the Czech Republic. It is a kind of hidden barrier that appears on both sides of inter-ethnic interactions, both on the side of the majority and on the side of Romani people themselves, and it builds an imaginary wall between us.
Sometimes this barrier becomes tangible and the gulf between the majority society and Romani people materializes in an actual physical separation - for example, in the case of some excluded localities, or in the case of segregated schools. Sometimes it hides behind other barriers - for example, taking the form of the housing benefit-free zones, where it is clear that it is exactly Romani people who will be beaten down the most as a consequence of such measures.
Antigypsyism is still present and rampant in all of society, which means Romani people themselves sometimes prefer to avoid taking the path of reconciliation because, for several generations now, that path has failed. They prefer to remain closed in on themselves and to further cultivate distrust of the institutions of the majority society and its members.
This is demonstrated by these Romani people not just during their negotiations with authorities, but also and especially during all kinds of elections, in which many of these people in particular do not participate. How, though, can something like this be influenced from the EU level?
The fact is that it is not easy to influence institutions that are themselves covertly antigypsyist or racist. Elected representatives naturally strive for re-election and may continue to exploit - with relish - a favorite instrument of populism here, the so-called "antigypsyist card".
The European institutions do not succumb to this pressure very often, but their policies do influence national-level ones. The EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies in its post-2020 version must clearly formulate the measures necessary to combat antigypsyism.
The approach being taken by one of the current MEPs of Romani origin, Soraya Post, is also very good, as it emphasizes discovering truths and taking the path of reconciliation. This approach can yield the outcomes we desire - for example, when it comes to issues related to the forced sterilization of Romani women.
Current MEPs of Romani origin
Livia Jaroka, Hungary, Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats)
Soraya Post, Sweden, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Damian Drăghici, Romania, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Romeo Franz, Germany, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
James Carver, Great Britain, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group.
One of the EU's main instruments is financing, and after 2020, the European Commission will continue to condition the distribution of EU funds on the Member States having each developed a National Roma Inclusion Strategy. Exactly for that reason, it is necessary to create a strong EU Framework for these national-level strategies, one that should be brought forward by the European Commission to beef up the nonprofit sector's position for actively implementing the framework requirements at national level.
The EU and Roma-related issues - who is who and what can they do?
The needs and situations of Romani people are dealt with by the "triangle" of the Council of the EU, the European Commission, and the European Parliament, and they do their best to contribute to improving the quality of life for Romani people across the EU itself and in the candidate countries, especially Turkey and the Western Balkans. Given how the EU functions, it is important to realize that none of its institutions will be able to promote measures that the Member States do not agree on.
The only EU measure that somehow obliges a Member State to take action without that agreement is one that functions on the basis not just of existing EU directives, but of newly-developed ones, as in the case of the segregation of Romani children in the education systems of several Member States. The European Commission recently opened up the opportunity to bring infringement procedures against those Member States over this issue, procedures for violation of duties which can lead to fines for violating the relevant directives should it be proven that the obligations are not being fulfilled.
As part of the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission there is a Non-Discrimination and Roma Coordination Unit that is in charge of coordinating the European Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. Romani people also work in that department (or rather, currently one Romani women does).
The unit collaborates with the national-level Roma coordinators (represented for the Czech Republic by the Office of the Czech Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs) as well as with nonprofit organizations in Brussels, and organizes consultation meetings several times a year, as well as the European Platform for Roma Inclusion. There are also other Directorates-General involved in these issues as well.
The most relevant are the Directorate-General for Employment (DG EMPL), for Regional Policy (DG REGIO) (which also has a Romani staffer), for Education (DG EDU), for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), and for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) - each of which deals with the Romani minority and has its own priorities established in that regard. The EU Court of Auditors has also contributed to this area, writing several reports about the situation of Romani people in which the authors agreed that the current implementation of the EU funds' strategy is not working because antigypsyism especially frequently prevents success in a systematic way.
The European Commission also assesses how the individual states are doing in this regard. In addition to issuing the European Commission and European Parliament Communications about the situation of Roma, the EC also does its best to aid and coordinate the Member States to better implement their own national strategies.
Each such Communication includes specific recommendations. These communications are not binding, just recommendations.
DG Justice's Roma Unit also invites the National Roma Contact Points to Brussels more than once a year for coordination meetings. However, the most important - and so far the most binding - conclusions for Romani people's purposes have been the conclusions of the EPSCO Council (the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council of the ministers of labor and social affairs of the Member States).
EPSCO's 2013 conclusions established the necessity for all Member States to report on how they are fulfilling some of the basic measures related to Romani people. As far as opportunities to audit or directly pressure for the fulfillment of specific measures, however, it is again the European Commission that audits and has some capacity to communicate with the Member States, i.e., through the National Roma Coordinators - who are more able to advise and aid than they are to criticize or exert pressure.
The only actors who can actually push for change are civil society ones. Only that sector has the opportunity to be critical.
The question, however, is whether civil society actually gets that opportunity, or whether it doesn't also stand to lose something by playing that role. Financial support for civil society watchdog organizations to follow the policy trends and guard against negative developments generally does not exist, despite the fact that it is so necessary.
One good example is the Roma Civil Monitor project, through which nonprofit organizations create a Shadow Report for each EU country. The information from these reports is meant to serve civil society exactly for the purposes of creating pressure, to aid them with taking a critical perspective on the situations in different areas regarding what measures exist and how effective they are.
Roma Week at the European Parliament
Both bigger and smaller events touching on Roma issues happen at EU level. The regular ones include the European Platform meetings and the European Roma Week. Other events are organized by the European Economic and Social Committee, by MEPs themselves, by UN agencies such as the representation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the EU, the World Bank, and several nonprofit organizations.
In Brussels there are more than 20 different networks of European organizations or international nonprofit organizations, four of which are currently Romani-related: ERGO Network (European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network), REDI (Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative), ERRC (European Roma Rights Centre), and ERIO (European Roma Information Office).
GABRIELA HRABAŇOVÁ (1979)
The current director of the ERGO Network organization earned a Bachelor's degree in Politics and Society and a Master's degree in International Relations and Diplomacy at the private Anglo-American University in Prague. She began working as a consultant for non-governmental, non-profit organizations in the Czech Republic as an "eRider" and worked for several years managing the civic student association Athinganoi. She was employed by the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic as director of the Office of the Czech Government Council on Roma Minority Affairs. She was very strongly engaged in the Czech EU Presidency, during which the Ten Common Basic Principles for Romani Integration were adopted and the first EU Roma Platform was organized. She has also been active as a member of the Advisory Forum to the director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and as a member of the management board of the Romedia Foundation in Budapest, Hungary.
Photo: European Parliament
Other such international organizations are Eurochild, Eurocities, the European Anti-Poverty Network, European Public Health Alliance and others that deal with Romani people. ERGO Network believes it is important to bring Romani subjects to conferences where they would otherwise never be raised at all.
ERGO is frequently invited as a guest to events focused on Romani issues, but we also do our best to present questions touching on Romani people and our own work at events that are not Roma-focused. ERGO does this at events associated with the European Semester, the European Pillar of Social Rights, initiatives to increase employment such as the Youth Guarantee, and the Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights.
European Roma Week was held this year for a fourth time. It was initiated by MEP Soraya Post, along with several other MEPs, to celebrate and commemorate the first-ever specific EP resolution on antigypsyism, which was adopted on 15 April 2015.
The event is specific in that it is co-convened with nonprofits. European Roma Week is an aggregation of conferences and workshops, each of which is held under the auspices of a different MEP and is convened by a different organization.
Everybody contributes to the programs of each event and the European Parliament's Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI) then coordinates all of the stakeholders. ERGO Network has been involved with the European Roma Week from the beginning and always participates in several of its events.
Annually, together with TernYpe (International Roma Youth Network), we make it possible for dozens of Romani young people to attend European Roma Week and get to know the work of the EU institutions and nonprofits in Brussels close up. This was the final year in which these particular members of the European Commission and European Parliament would be involved with this effort, which made it all the more exceptional.
Andrej Kiska, Unknown Heroines and Soraya Post
European Roma Week would not be meaningful without the active involvement of Romani activists from all over Europe. - this year there were about 80 young people in Brussels for two different trainings during the week, one on lobbying European institutions and one on the EU elections. ERGO additionally coordinated the participation of the most eminent activists from Romani civil society in Europe under the auspices of the Alliance against Antigypsyism together with the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, the Documentation and Cultural Centre of Sinti and Roma, and the European Network against Racism (ENAR).
One of the bigger Roma Week events this year focused on civil society monitoring and on how to take advantage of the information produced by civil society during the next programming period to create new Roma inclusion strategies. Activities were organized by ERGO that focused on the Sustainable Development Goals and how to aid nonprofits with lobbying about them, as well as how to promote the idea of indicators on Romani development into UN reports on this issue.
A report was published on this issue called "Roma Included: Can the Sustainable Development Goals Contribute to Combating Antigypsyism?" Another crucial event during European Roma Week this year was the conference on "Creating Trust through Uncovering and Recognising the Truth: Advancing Recognition and Remedy for anti-Gypsyism", convened by MEP Soraya Post together with the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano (FSG), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Europe, the Open Society European Policy Institute, and ERGO Network.
That event focused on assessing the activities to date in this area and discussing the current state of affairs and efforts by different stakeholders to make progress in combating antigypsyism by acknowledging its existence, redressing it, and undertaking processes of reconciliation and trust-building. People who have been directly affected by antigypsyism spoke at the event, sharing their stories so that the debate could move from the conceptual, theoretical level to the level of how policies in each state directly influence lives.
Awards recognizing achievement were also part of European Roma Week this year. Slovak President Andrej Kiska received an award from the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, as did the "Unknown Heroines" - 14 inspiring activists who are Romani women and were given the EU Award for Romani Integration in the Western Balkans and Turkey.
MEP Soraya Post also received an award for her excellent support for the fight against antigypsyism at the EP. Without her, there would be no European Roma Week at all.
I would like to emphasize that Post has managed to get pledges from different MEPs and their political groups that if they are re-elected, they will continue to work on achieving European Parliament elections that will be racism-free, that they will support a new, effective EU policy for Romani people after 2020, and that they will continue to combat antigypsyism during the new legislative period. The MEPs who signed her initiative have pledged to create a European society where Romani people will access the rights set forth in our treaties and where there will be a healthy society without racism, a society of which we can be proud.
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