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President of the European Commission
European Roma Summit
It is a great pleasure for me to open this first-ever European Roma Summit in Brussels. I wish to thank Commissioner Špidla for all his work and commitment in organising this important High Level Forum on Roma Inclusion.
I expect this summit to be much more than just another meeting, because it bears a great responsibility. The problem which we are facing together - as political leaders and citizens, as members of majority societies and as Roma - is one of great urgency. It is urgent not just in political terms, but above all in human terms.
The recent enlargements of the European Union have led to a significant increase in the number of Roma or Roma-related people living in most Member States. Most of these people are European citizens. And the Roma have, since the Middle Ages, been part of Europe. Yet they still represent the largest ethnic group facing extreme poverty, social exclusion, and discrimination on our territory. Most of their population, which is in the millions, lives in conditions which are simply not acceptable in 21st-century Europe.
What makes this situation particularly worrying is the lack of perspectives faced by the young Roma generation, which represents a substantial proportion of the Roma population. In the "knowledge society" of the 21st century, the lack of skills faced by this disadvantaged group increasingly means wasted lives. It is, of course, a terrible loss for the human beings concerned, but in the context of the goals set by the renewed Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs, it is also a loss for whole societies.
Of course, social exclusion and marginalisation affect not only the Roma population. But the situation of this particular group is characterized by persisting discrimination. 77% of Europeans think that being Roma is a disadvantage in society, on a par with being disabled (79%). European and national surveys show that these negative views are often based on stereotypes and prejudice. And we know how perceptions can be more important than reality in creating the right – or the wrong – environment for change.
Roma and non-Roma civil society and, in particular, the media sector, have a special responsibility and a crucial role to play in this context. Indeed, the media are well placed to fight against negative perceptions and stereotypes and to bring best practices to light.
Let us be frank: There is no place for a laissez-faire or business-as-usual approach. The Commission strongly rejects any stigmatization of Roma. In the European Union every man, woman and child has the right to live a life free from discrimination and persecution. This is an issue of European and universal values, as well as an issue of fairness, social solidarity and democracy.
The European Council of December 2007 called upon both the European Union and the Member States to use all means to improve the inclusion of Roma. The Roma are facing real problems in terms of unemployment, poverty, education, health and living conditions in several Member States. The commitment to step up efforts to facilitate the inclusion of the Roma is part of the renewed social agenda and the Social Package adopted on 2 July.
Mainstream societies need to offer the Roma a real, practical chance to improve their perspectives. Unless hope enters Roma neighbourhoods, shantytowns and makeshift settlements, these places will inevitably become zones of insecurity for their inhabitants and for the mainstream societies which surround them.
Quite often, we hear actors from mainstream societies putting the blame for this tragic situation on the Roma themselves, on their way of life. Many people tend to say that the starting point for change must come from an increased sense of responsibility among the Roma.
On the other hand, Roma civil society leaders mostly tend to emphasize that they expect urgent action to start from public authorities.
As a matter of fact, we need both. We need increased action by public authorities and majority societies, as well as increased civic responsibility among the Roma. There are several reasons for this.
First, while we should not paint the Roma as mere passive victims, we must be aware of the huge gap between what our affluent, well organised societies can do and what the Roma themselves can achieve.
Second, we should acknowledge that it is often the Roma individual who complains about oppression within the Roma community. But we cannot effectively ensure individual rights unless we deal effectively with exclusion, discrimination and racism which these individuals persistently face from dominant societies.
It is true there are exclusion, discrimination and sometimes racism against Roma. Let's not avoid the word racism here.
Indeed, protection of individual rights, particularly of Roma children and women, must be our highest value. This has been taken into account in the activities and comparative reports of the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, which helps to coordinate action addressing the situation of Roma in the Member States.
Finally, while we should encourage the Roma to take control of their destiny and responsibility for their lives, we must first offer them real opportunities.
What kind of opportunities, then?
Mainstream education. Mainstream jobs. Mainstream housing.
We need more than just non discrimination. These people have been so excluded - by majority societies as well as by their own traditions - that they are simply not starting from the same point like most other citizens. This is a question of fairness and a question of opportunities.
We must reach out to the Roma. For that we can build on experience with positive action in a number of Member States and in fields such as gender equality. Our policies must take ethno-cultural differences and entrenched social disadvantages into account. But their ultimate aim should be to open for the Roma effective access to mainstream education, jobs and housing - and not to create or maintain some kind of parallel system of education, employment and housing.
We need a strong commitment to the ideals of equality combined with a healthy degree of economic pragmatism.
Public policies that address the Roma should deal above all with the harsh socio-economic realities of their lives. What we need is active support for the education of Roma children; for culturally sensitive job counselling; or for the promotion of legitimate self-employment through management courses, microcredit and other instruments.
The potential role of the private sector has also, so far, been largely overlooked. Yet this is an important route for stimulating Roma inclusion in formalised economic activities.
Inclusion of Roma is a joint responsibility of the European Union and the Member States.
The instruments for creating change are mainly in the hands of the Member States. Key policies for the inclusion of Roma are the competence of Member States, though they are, or can be, coordinated at the Community level.
What we are doing here at this Roma summit, exchanging experience and raising awareness, is also important and I hope that this is not a one-off event, but will lead to a real process.
The European Commission can help through its legislative instruments, such as the non-discrimination Directives; through its financial instruments, such as the Structural Funds and the PROGRESS programme as well as through its information campaigns and support for capacity building.
The Commission can also play an active role by providing policy guidance and stimulating the exchange of good practice between Member States.
However, we must avoid giving the impression that the dramatic situation of the Roma can be solved from Brussels. Such an approach would be irresponsible. What is needed is the political will to use the available instruments in favour of the Roma. And those instruments should be used at national, regional and, indeed, also at local level.
In this context, the idea of a European Platform for Roma Inclusion might be a useful one. Mutual learning and joint analysis can help to promote inclusion across the EU.
Finally, let me also mention the plight of the Roma outside the European Union. The Commission will continue applying the Copenhagen criteria and focusing on the conditions of the Roma in its dialogue with candidate countries.
In this context, the laudable efforts of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, launched by the World Bank and the Open Society Institute, deserve to be mentioned. This is an initiative which unites Member States as well as those which are at present outside the Union, and allows for a valuable exchange of experience and raising awareness. I am happy to say that the European Commission has always given its full political support to this initiative.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am convinced that this "Roma Summit" represents a unique opportunity for getting the problems of the Roma higher up the political agenda. Last December, the European Council addressed the issue of the Roma for the first time; now we have the first high-level EU conference on "Roma affairs". We should all try to get the most out of it.
Many of you have been, of course, to events concerning Roma which were organised by other actors such as the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and others who have long been involved in this area. Many wise recommendations have already been put forward in those forums, but they were often not followed. It is our task to ensure that this Roma Summit makes a difference. Let's focus on the analysis and let's focus on the implementation, too.
After all, it has perhaps the highest level political participation in history. It also brings together an unprecedented number of actors from Roma civil society, which has been fully involved in its preparation. And there is, or should be, a clearer sense of direction than ever before.
The Commission will look very carefully at the conclusions and I will personally analyse them.
I wish you all an interesting and productive Summit.