ERGO meets EC desk officers

ERGO members meet European Commission desk officers

On 10 September 2020, the European Roma Grassroots Organisations (ERGO) Network facilitated an online exchange meeting between its national members in 5 key countries (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia) and their counterparts in the country desks of DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL) and DG Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO).

The meeting served as a space to update each other on the preparation of National Roma Integration Strategies in the specific countries, as well as on Roma participation in the process of designing measures to target Roma under the European Funds. The participants also discussed the possibility to introduce Roma indicators in the funds, connecting them better with the Roma strategies. Finally, in view of the upcoming European Semester Country Reports 2021, the European Commission urged ERGO Network members to feed Roma realities and proposals, in particular with a view to the pandemic and recovery.

ERGO Network director Gabriela Hrabanova pointed out that the exchange was very timely, as we are now living a crucial moment where dots need to be connected to ensure that Roma rights and inclusion are delivered on. She stressed the importance of having a Roma-specific indicator, to ensure that the impact of measures and funds on Roma communities can be measured, and lessons learned. Investment is also needed in civil society, to build capacity and strong coalitions in order to effectively put forward the voice of the Roma. She reminded that ERGO Network is also actively monitoring the European Semester and wishes to see better alignment between these processes and the EU Roma Strategic Framework.

ERGO Network members expressed their concerns regarding the situation in their countries. For Bulgaria, Liliya Makaveeva and Kadrin Hasanov from Integro Association, stressed that civil society organisations were not involved in the consultation processes for the elaboration of the post-2020 National Roma Integration Strategy. The situation was better when it came to the working groups for most Operational Programmes, where civil society is present and can put forward proposals – even if those are not always taken into account. It is equally important to ensure that the Roma feature prominently in the upcoming Country Reports 2021.

In Czech Republic, Michal Miko from RomanoNet, Jelena Silajdžić from Slovo 21, and Nikola Taragoš from Romodrom agreed that they felt that their country was on the right path to have a good Strategy with positive measures, although there is always room for improvement. For the first time, Roma NGOs and the Roma Council are able to negotiate with different ministries to achieve good quality Operational Programmes, and hopefully deliver real inclusion for the Roma in the Czech Republic.

For Hungary, András Nun from Autonómia Foundation and Melinda Kassai from Butterfly Development informed that, unfortunately, civil society is not being involved in any process, and drafts have not been shared. The state of democracy in Hungary is dire, and civil society is systematically disempowered and kept out. There are no open calls, funding is allocated behind closed doors, without competition, participation, or transparency. A few well connected actors receive all the opportunities.

For Romania, Florin Botonogu from the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities and Daniel Grebeldinger from Nevo Parudimos indicated that the next national Strategy looks like a good document on paper, and – very importantly – has budgetary allocations attached. Civil society has been very involved in the drafting process, this was the closest cooperation in the history of the national Strategy. Both organisations have closely followed both this process, as well as the consultations around EU funds, which was however a much poorer engagement process. It was very difficult to ensure the delivery of Community-Led Local Development (CLLD) during the pandemic, as .community participation was not feasible in online meetings.

For Slovakia, Zuzana Havírová from the Roma Advocacy and Research Center shared that the country now had a new Head of the Plenipotentiary Officer for Roma Communities, which means that the process for the preparation of the Strategy was much more open to Roma people and the civil society organisations working with them than previously. This is a very encouraging step, however more can be done to improve participation, ownership, and transparency.  

Konstantinos Niafas, from the Romanian desk in DG REGIO, noted the process of regionalisation currently taking place in Romania, which means that some of the EU Funds will be channelled through regional Operational Programmes in the next programming period. While the negotiation processes for the planning of the period 2021-2027 are ongoing, there is a parallel open channel to discuss the recovery and resilience funds, a process which is still being designed. The Commission is hoping to receive the National Recovery Plans from Member States by October – this is a process coordinated by the Secretariat General of the European Commission, together with DG ECFIN. However, he stated, a lot of coordination was needed, with all these processes taking place at the same time, so such exchange meetings are welcome.

Ştefan Păduraru, working in the Romanian desk in DG EMPL, also noted that addressing the needs of disadvantaged communities, including Roma, was an important priority for the European Commission in the ongoing negotiations on the next programming period. As these negotiations are not finalised, however, it would be difficult to comment on specific future interventions. Grassroots organisations such as the ERGO Network members are encouraged to proactively contribute to this process through, for example, the consultation process undertaken by the Romanian authorities on the draft Operational Programmes.

Pavel Tychtl, working for the Czech Republic desk in DG EMPL, highlighted that sensitive, intelligent solutions needed to be found at both EU and national level to collect disaggregated information on Roma without infringing data privacy. This would enable having a concrete and specific indicator, which would allow all parties to evaluate the impact of the measures. It is important to keep in place the explicit, but not exclusive, principle when designing specific Roma targeted measures. Regarding civil society engagement in the Czech Republic, the overall feeling is that there is good cooperation, relevant actors work together. Even where voices are diverse, the message is strengthened. Information from the ground is incredibly appreciated and valuable, and national meetings are also open to civil society actors.

Andor Ürmös, from DG REGIO, stressed that the debate on a Roma-specific indicator was a very important one, as such as indicator would help improve Roma participation in the big Programmes. However, he expressed concern that such an indicator, if used improperly, might lead to segregation, and that social and economic inclusion of the Roma would be seen as a separate side-process.

After the opening plenary, participants split into breakout rooms according to countries, in order to be able to exchange bilaterally more in detail about specific national concerns. Some of these bilateral discussions during the meeting have led to the setting up of more such follow-up meetings, so that the two sides can keep each other involved.

Once participants reconvened once more in the main virtual room, Jamen Gabriela Hrabaňová, ERGO Network Director, ended the meeting by reassuring desk officers that ERGO Network national members and staff stand committed, willing, and able to provide all necessary input and feedback from their work directly at grassroots level, to make sure that the voice of the Roma is being heard.