“Hope has never trickled down, it has always sprung up”, quoted European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli in her keynote address on the third day of an online exchange between cities on the rights of Roma people.
The debate, which the Commissioner noted was a very timely one, came just days after she announced the new EU strategy for Roma inclusion, equality and participation.
The quote, which references social activist Naomi Klein, was in fact used to highlight one of the central aspects of the new EU strategy: the need to work with local communities through participatory measures in order to build dialogue and trust.
The new EU Roma framework 2020-2030 includes 3 horizontal areas – equality, inclusion and participation – in addition to the 4 pre-existing sectoral approaches on education, employment, housing and health. To address all these issues, the European Commission calls for a combination of mainstreaming Roma inclusion into all relevant policies and targeted policies explicitly for helping Roma people (but not exclusively for Roma).
In her keynote address, the Commissioner pointed out that it is only at the city level that it is really possible to adapt to local needs and give meaning to EU and national policies. This requires the active participation of all stakeholders, including Roma people themselves.
“Unless everybody is on board working towards the same goal, none of this will happen,” said the Commissioner.
The Commissioner quoted another famous woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, to drive home the point: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”
“Unless these rights have meaning, they have little meaning anywhere,” she said.
In essence, she summarised that making the protection and empowerment of Roma people a reality depends on:
- A strong role for local authorities;
- The active involvement of local authorities in the design, implementation, evaluation, and review of national strategies for Roma inclusion;
- Better channelling of EU funds to the local level.
Following the Commissioner’s remarks, these points were picked up on in a high-level political panel debate entitled, ‘What role for cities in the new EU strategic framework for Roma equality, inclusion and participation?’ where panellists were asked to discuss progress under the current EU Roma framework, their reaction to the new framework and on the role of cities.
Sedat Arif, the Deputy Mayor of Malmo and Chair of Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, answered that, “cities are the first authorities in contact with Roma people and are in the best position to identify their specific challenges at local level and develop tailored solutions.”
He also shared details of the Malmo Council for the national Roma minority where politicians and Roma representatives meet regularly to discuss policies that affect Roma people. In addition, Malmo invests €1 million annually to support the city’s Roma knowledge and information centre to implement its local action plan for the inclusion of Roma people in all parts of society.
The idea of a Roma Council, promoting the participation of Roma people in local decision making that in turn impacts them, is an idea shared by other city representatives from Barcelona and Berlin that joined the debate.
Berlin has been a leading city in translating the current EU Roma framework into a local action plan, and this work was the focus of the online mutual learning among cities over two consecutive days, more on which can be read about here.
Daniel Tietze, State Secretary for Integration from Berlin, explained how the city has tried to improve access to the labour market for Roma people while also gaining support from political stakeholders. In fact, in developing its Roma and Sinti advisory board, the city has also created a legal framework, and its good practices have helped shape the national level legislation on anti-discrimination.
Sonia Fuertes, Barcelona’s Commissioner for Social Action and Integration, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionately negative effect on the most vulnerable among Roma communities. Additionally, she noted that the experience in tackling the crisis shows how challenging it is to cope with such an unprecedented situation, especially because many Roma people live under irregular economic conditions.
The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of pre-existing conditions, such as housing deprivation and precarious housing conditions, leading to Roma people being more exposed to negative health and socio-economic impacts, as well as discrimination.
Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova, Director of the European Roma Grassroots Organisations network, which represents associations in more than 20 European countries, said that she believes the newly announced EU Roma strategic framework is a step in the right direction, but wants the fight against anti-gypsyism to be a more central element of its implementation within both national and local action plans.
Hrabanova also suggested that cities can play an important role in monitoring Roma inclusion and said that participation should really be seen as the most important element of the new EU strategy, especially making sure Roma people can step up to take active roles within local action groups, as well as more broadly within urban development strategies.
Clearly there is still a lot to do to close the gap between Roma and non-Roma people in many areas. More still needs to be done to empower and encourage Roma people to participate at all levels in city life. This includes involving Roma people through targeted measures, but also through mainstreaming Roma in all policy areas.
Another point that was highlighted throughout the debate was the need to improve the channelling of EU funding to local level. As the recent report from the European Parliament on Roma inclusion mentioned, funds for Roma inclusion are often best used at local level. Now this needs to go beyond declarations and be applied concretely in the programming of EU and national funds for the next years.
The next big task for Roma inclusion and participation will be to translate the ambitious EU objectives into concrete actions on the ground. Member states have until September 2021 to develop their national Roma strategies, and involving cities in their design will ensure sufficient flexibility to adapt to different local needs.