On 22nd March 2012: the biggest, and most expensive EU event ever on discrimination against women, promoted as an ‘Extraordinary meeting on discrimination against women and social inclusion in Europe,’ takes place in Brussels. The meeting focuses on the national strategies and EU framework meant to address discrimination and exclusion faced by women.
The official agenda prepared by the European Commission shows 29 speakers. Two of them are women – a staggering 8% of the total. Of the first 14 speakers, only one has any recognised or formal experience working on gender issues. The two female speakers have lived in Brussels for the past eight years, and have little experience at the national level, and none at the grassroots level. One of them is the only female representative in the most conservative, anti-European, and overwhelmingly male-led ruling party in Europe. Her presence in the European Parliament is considered to be tokenistic. The other woman – a representative of civil society – is speaker number 19.
In total, of the entire time allocated to the conference, less than 5% is spent on discussion with women who have relevant experience and expertise on gender issues.
The 22 March conference was not, in fact, about women. It was about Roma, described by the Commission and the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) as the ethnic group most discriminated against in Europe. Just replace the word woman with Roma in the paragraphs above, and you have an accurate description of what took place on 22 March. The right-wing party mentioned is the Hungarian Fidesz party.
I, recently drew the Commission’s attention to the fact that the Commission and the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) show all the signs of structural racism – inequalities rooted in the way society operates, that exclude substantial numbers of people from particular racial groups from significantly accessing and participating in major social institutions. What better proof than the 22 March conference?
In recent years, the Commission and the FRA have rightly exerted strong pressure on national governments to do much more to increase the social inclusion of Roma. In speeches and on paper, they have strongly promoted Roma involvement in decision-making and the appointment of Roma and Roma experts within governments.
Yet, when it comes to Roma and Roma expertise, the most exclusive bureaucracies are not those of national governments, but the Commission and the FRA themselves. There are no Roma working within the FRA, and not one Roma expert, even in a junior management position, within the Commission.
The European Parliament is at the forefront of advancing Roma social inclusion. Ten parliamentary resolutions since 2004 have focused on Roma, most of them calling on the Commission to reform institutional and financial mechanisms to tackle Roma exclusion better. Civil-society organisations and independent experts have repeatedly made similar calls. Most were ignored (including all of the substantial ones) by the Commission, just as member states have ignored most of the recommendations made by the Commission.
The EU has failed, when it comes to the social inclusion of Roma, and the Commission has played a key role in this failure. Member states bear the main responsibility, but we can and should address some of the most obvious institutional failures of the European bureaucracy.
One direct result of poorly thought-through European funding is the rapid disappearance of watchdog NGOs in general, and of Roma watchdog NGOs in particular – because, to secure funding, they have transformed themselves into providers of social services. The level of expertise on Roma issues within the Commission at a senior management level is limited, reflected in a series of poor, or window-dressing, decisions. Well-intended policies funded by Structural Funds are increasing social exclusion in the medium and long term: giving NGOs roles that should be played by local administrations and public services leads to a ‘ghettoisation’ of the Roma issue.
An independent annual evaluation of the Commission’s institutional and financial mechanisms, overseen by the European Parliament, could be a solution. This evaluation might increase the incentive for EU bureaucracies to make better decisions on Roma social inclusion, and could provide practical solutions to the many problems that exist. It might also avert the extraordinary exclusion of Roma at future extraordinary EU meetings on the Roma.
Valeriu Nicolae, president of the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities in Bucharest