"C. whereas, as regards the question of ethnic minorities, insufficient attention continues to be paid to the situation of the Roma, who suffer severe discrimination in education, on the employment market, within public services and in civil society; whereas education for Roma children is segregated, the level of education is very low and unemployment among the Roma is alarmingly high; whereas discrimination against the Roma may, for the most part, be regarded as an attitude problem, which the Hungarian government must tackle seriously; whereas it should be possible to find a solution given that a Minorities Office has been set up and medium-term legislation has been passed, which will help them to become integrated into Hungarian society."
Thus recital C of the Queiró report adopted in Strasbourg during the plenary session of the European Parliament on 1 October. That the plight of the Roma throughout Central Europe has begun attracting greater attention in the corridors of the Commission and Parliament is no better illustrated than by the meeting of the EU-Hungary Joint Parliamentary Committee held in Brussels on 11 and 12 October, where it was the dominant theme, overshadowing even the visit of Commissioner Verheugen and the latest wranglings over the timetable for EU Enlargement.
History was made as Mr Flórián Farkas, President of the National Roma Self-Government and Dr Toso Doncsev, President of the Office for Ethnic and National Minorities, addressed the members of the Committee, answering their questions about the current state of affairs in Hungary.
Representing the French Presidency, Mr Faure set the ball rolling during the first working session in his introductory statement by homing in on the situation of the Roma, describing where there was still room for improvement politically:
As you know, the Commission's 2000 Regular Report on Hungary's progress towards accession will be presented in a month's time. I am confident that it will reaffirm Hungary's good pace of legislative approximation. We are able to take stock of developments at the recent Association Council with Hungary. With regard to the political criteria, we recognise the efforts to implement the medium-term Roma action programme, and we feel that further efforts are necessary to tackle the level of discrimination in society. As to the fight against corruption, this is a problem that will need the Hungarian government's continued and increased attention.
This served as a preface to a broader-ranging debate, where István Szabó of Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats, leading party in the current government coalition) examined the problems faced from a Hungarian vantagepoint. Quoting from a sociological study carried out by the Hungarian Academy of the Sciences in 1993, he painted a depressing picture of the harsh realities faced by the Roma population.
Fidesz and figures
9.4 per cent of the Roma had not attended any form of school at all, 32.8% completed one to seven grades, 45.5% finished eight grade, 10.4% graduated from vocational or technical school, 1.5% from the secondary schools where completion of the syllabus and final exam that entitles the candidate to enter higher education and 0.2% graduated from college or university. Unemployment figures for non-Romani men stood at 14.2% and for women 11.2%. By contrast, 50.1% of Romani men were out of work and 48.9% of women. Amongst the Roma holding down a job, 98.2% were blue-collar workers.
Mr Szabó went on to emphasise (rightly) the complete absence of persecution of minorities in Hungary, referring briefly to the relevant law from 1993, which led to the creation of the self-government system a year later, the existence as of 1995 of a Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minority Rights (generally known as the Minority Ombudsman), cumulatively affording a unique set of institutions for safeguarding and defending minority rights. This denial was echoed later by the Co-Chairman of the JPC, Mr József Szájer (also Fidesz), who put forward the Hungarian case unequivocally: there quite simply is no deliberate, systematic, state-sanctioned (or for that matter, state-sponsored) persecution or discrimination against the Roma.
In this, I agree with him completely. Regardless of the prejudices, which may exist amongst ordinary citizens, to accuse the Hungarian government of consciously taking action against its own subjects is to indulge in a malicious fiction, a wilful distortion of reality. This is not the same as denying that there are problems, it is not a cover up or an exercise in sweeping an uncomfortable subject under the carpet. I abhor discrimination in any shape or form, whatever its motive, tarted up with an ideological gloss to assume a false appearance of respectability or not.
No government in Hungary of any political persuasion would jeopardise the country's vital interests by engaging in some misguided and crazed campaign against its own people. Unfortunately, the truth is seldom as appealing emotionally as a good yarn spun to boost circulations.
The nature of the problems faced by the Roma is such, according to Mr Szabó, as to require more than the legal framework the minority legislation can provide. A medium-term programme of measures, drafted in close co-operation with the National Roma Self-Government, was finalised by the government last year. Its very adoption represented a recognition of the pre-eminence of tackling the problems faced by the Roma in the course of daily life in Hungary.
Ambitious and wide-ranging, the programme covers the areas of education, culture, employment, agriculture, regional development, social affairs, health care, housing, communication and combating discrimination in society at large, with a view to promoting the social integration of the Roma, guaranteeing them equality of opportunity and reinforcing their identity and culture.
Likewise in 1999, an inter-departmental committee was established in order to co-ordinate the work performed by the various Ministries with Flórián Farkas (in his capacity as President of the National Roma Self-Government) as a permanent member. Each Ministry was called upon to draw up an annual action plan for implementing the tasks defined in the package and to allocate the necessary budgetary resources to put them into practice.
Every September, the Chairman of the Inter-departmental Committee is required to give a progress report to the government including an estimate of the costs likely to be incurred the following year. For 2000, HUF (Hungarian forint) 4.86 billion (USD 16 million) has been set aside for the package, though if various other subsidies are totted up, the grand total earmarked for assisting the Roma is closer to HUF 7.2 billion (USD 23.8 million).
Under the PHARE programme for 1999, a two-year joint project by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs targeted at young Roma was granted assistance. Similar initiatives included the Roma Social Integration Programme organised by the National and Ethnic Minorities Office for the purpose not only of facilitating integration of disadvantaged Roma as its title suggests, but also of improving communication between the Roma and non-Roma communities, running legal protection offices and setting up an information database.
And the list goes on: a series of scholarships administrated by public foundations to encourage talented Roma to remain in full-time education (awarding money to 586 secondary school pupils and 111 college students for the academic year 1999-2000); the opening of the National Roma Information and Cultural Centre; the running of Roma Community Centres; placements on public works projects for the long-term unemployed; course material for aspirant police officers to reduce the likelihood of discrimination on the part of the force.
On the media front, Hungarian Television concluded an agreement with the national minority self-governments in order to improve the conditions for minority programme-making, including the allocation of a prime-time TV slot for the Roma. Hungarian Radio now has regular information broadcasts with a live programme of 30 minutes a week. For the benefit of non-Hungarian organisations, a brochure entitled (somewhat drearily) "State Measures in the Interest of the Social Integration of the Roma Living in Hungary" has been produced in a bilingual English-French edition.
In concluding his remarks, Mr Szabó mentioned that the long-term strategy paper would be debated in the Hungarian Parliament before the end of the year.
Figures and concerns
Mr Farkas was next to take the floor, correcting some of the figures cited by Mr Szabó. According to Mr Farkas, a more accurate estimate of the Roma population in Hungary would set it at around 800,000 (in contrast to the 450,000 mentioned by Mr Szabó). 0.3% of Roma had completed higher education, the unemployment rate stood at approximately 90%, and 70% could be categorised as disadvantaged or underprivileged. Mr Farkas highlighted the historical dimension of the problems encountered; they were not new just because the outside world had suddenly woken up to their existence. Likewise, it would be unrealistic to expect that they could be solved overnight.
His basic concern was to eliminate all forms of discrimination and hardship in everyday life, wherever they reared their ugly heads. He rejected the approach favoured by certain protagonists, which encouraged the Roma to leave Hungary en masse (the backdrop to much of the debate was the furore triggered by József Krasznai's decision to turn to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, filing a suit against the Hungarian government on grounds of institutionalised discrimination and persecution or which redress is being sought in the form of compensation. There has been widespread anxiety about this opening the floodgates to an exodus from Hungary and elsewhere).
Thousands of historical and cultural ties bound the Roma to Hungary, which was their true homeland. As a result, it was infinitely preferable for the Roma to become proactive within their own institutions at home than to embark on a dubious journey of uncertain outcome abroad, for them to become responsible and productive citizens in the land of their birth. At the same time, Mr Farkas did not attempt to deny or play down the poverty and backwardness, the pernicious effects of which were cumulative and from which the only escape could be found in improving access to education and training.
Naturally, proper budgetary resources would have to be set aside and he appealed to the European Parliament to bring its influence to bear in this respect. The problems encountered by the Roma were a genuinely European issue and he was encouraged by the fact that they were finally being given the consideration they deserved.
Fact and figures or—misinformation?
Dr Doncsev echoed the sentiments expressed by Mr Farkas, devoting particular attention to the legitimacy of the Roma National Self-Government and Mr Farkas himself as its democratically elected leader (thereby throwing Krasznai's claim to be the only true spokesman on behalf of the Hungarian Roma out of the window). In his written submission, Dr Doncsev sketched out the character and role of the Roma Self-Governments in a bid to provide an accurate picture of the current state of affairs in Hungary by way of a response to the ignorance and downright misinformation, which so often informs the response of the media outside Hungary:
I would also like to note that parallel to the marginalisation of the Roma there has been a positive democratisation process taking place in society, a process, which also affects Roma inhabitants. Over the past few years the opportunities for the Roma to assert and represent their interests have improved to a considerable degree. In this, the Roma minority self-governments, civil organisations and in particular the National Roma Self-Government have played outstanding roles.
In Hungary, following the collapse of Communism, legislators paid particular attention to guaranteeing the rights of the minorities. The Constitution of the Republic of Hungary lays down the fundamental rights of the minorities; it guarantees their participation in public life; it ensures the nurturing of their cultures, the use and teaching of their native languages as well as their own representation and self-government. The Act on Minorities guarantees identical rights and opportunities for the Roma minority similarly to all the other national minorities living in Hungary. The minority act regards Roma culture as being of equal value to the cultures of the other national minorities.
Following minority self-government elections in 1998, the number of local minority self-governments almost doubled in comparison to the figures for the period from 1994 to 95. As a result, more than 3000 Roma became involved in public activities in local settlements across Hungary. The increase in the number of minority self-governments is proportional on a local, county and regional basis (currently 739 Roma self-governments are operating).
The legitimate National Roma Self-Government represents the interests of the Roma minority at national level, co-operating with the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities, as well as ministries and other organisations with national spheres of authority important from the point of view of Roma affairs. Associations of minority representatives or civil organisations have been formed in the majority of counties in Hungary. These associations are able to act more effectively at county level in drafting decisions, which also have an impact on the Roma inhabitants they represent.
There are around 280 registered Roma civil organisations operational in Hungary today. Parliament also supports this form of Roma self-organisation. During the course of the allotment of financial support for 2000, 52 organisations received nearly HUF 40 million (USD 132,000). Roma civil organisations representing Roma interests at national and county level received a considerable proportion of the funding...
It is the government's declared intention to establish a minority-friendly social environment in which citizens belonging to all minorities native to this country can live freely with their rights enshrined in the laws of the Republic of Hungary. The conscious nurturing of the minorities' culture is not only a duty arising from international obligations, but it is also in the long-term national interest. With the creation of the long-term Roma affairs strategy the Hungarian government wishes to continue a purposeful policy aimed at improving the situation of the Roma minority, and which can be confidently undertaken according to European norms.
Flórián Farkas speaks with CER
At the close of the first day's proceedings, I had the great honour of interviewing Mr Farkas briefly. Face to face, the Roma leader is charismatic and vested with a remarkable energy and enthusiasm. An extremely capable advocate of his eminently justified cause, his role as an intermediary is vital to the interests of the country as a whole, and he discharges his duties with the utmost conscientiousness.
CER: Very often the information published in the foreign press about the situation of the Roma in Hungary contains erroneous information or half-truths. Does this represent in your opinion deliberate misinformation or does it stem from ignorance? What might its source be? In what way can greater objectivity be introduced?
Flórián Farkas (FF): This whole issue is about as complex as you describe it in your question. I feel that the war raging between political forces plays a significant role here. Nevertheless I would not appreciate it, nor would it be a recommended course of action to follow and let me take this opportunity to pass on the message to the various political forces that they should not exploit the situation of the Roma in Hungary or internationally, nor should they pass on misinformation concerning the situation of the Roma in Hungary. What I fear is that such steps might stir up further prejudices, which already exist at the moment.
Let us interpret what I am saying as a message from me to the political elite to the effect that the previous and current Roma leaders have made mistakes, but let us assume of each other that we can make a fresh start on the entire issue. In the full knowledge of the problems and in possession of the opportunities to correct the mistakes, we should get together and resolve a question, which represents the most serious political issue in Hungary today.
Unfortunately, the risk of prejudice and discrimination confronts all the Roma in Central Europe, indeed all the 15 million Roma living throughout Europe, and therefore today or tomorrow, as I already pointed out, the international organisations and the major powers must face up to this extremely relevant and urgent problem for as long as it is possible to do something about it.
CER: What is your opinion of the current government's policy on the Roma? Where could and indeed should it be improved? How has official policy towards the Roma changed since the days of Kádár and also since the collapse of Communism?
FF: Governments come and governments go. Every government makes a small gesture, but spends more time talking about it (than doing anything). In reality, even if the government were to do considerably more, it would still not be enough, because far greater investments would be called for to compensate for inequalities that have developed over such a long period of time and for every single Hungarian Roma to become a productive and responsible citizens in his country.
As far as the current government's Roma policy is concerned, it has certainly been reassuring for me to arrive at the conclusion in the course of working towards an agreement that the government is willing to rethink the medium-term action programme in the light of what amounts to its failure, that the government is willing to relaunch it together with the Hungarian Roma Self-Government and will do so on the basis of a specific budgetary framework containing the requisite sums.
I deem it of the utmost importance that the overall concept within the resource co-ordination programme and the communication programme, flanked by an anti-discrimination law, is that the government apparently wants to act as a partner. It is vital, however, for this to be accompanied by an unequivocal political decision and a separate budget. If this were to be achieved, the Roma of Hungary would be in a position to take responsibility for their own fate and throw in their lot with their fellow citizens in the interests of EU accession. A successful accession to the EU can moreover bring benefits to the Roma of Hungary.
CER: What results do you expect of taking part in the work of the JPC?
FF: I attach huge importance to the fact that a Roma leader has been allowed to participate in the work of the Committee and has been allowed to speak critically about the situation of the Roma in Hungary and in Central Europe as a whole, to be able to recount to responsible-minded individuals the fate, which awaits us in Hungary and Central Europe in general. This has never happened before.
That the topic has been broached at such a level, and in front of such an audience, that it has sparked off such a debate suggests to me that the Roma issue is now beginning to be tackled at international level. People will begin sorting it out in their minds, the problem, which is a very serious one for humanity as a whole as well as for the political elite, has been shifted to this level, and the material I passed on to the Committee members—everyone present received a copy—will give them food for thought, since it sets out how to deal with the problem.