The highlight of the second day was Mr Verheugen's speech. Although his sneak preview of the regular report due to be made public on 8 November was little more than a repetition of what he had proclaimed the previous week during the Plenary, he did mention the end of 2002 as the date as of which the EU would be in a position to embrace new members into its ranks. It was high time for the EU to deliver on its promises, he pontificated, in an effort to retain its credibility and as a testimony to its resolve to enlarge.
Internal reform would not lead to the creation of fresh obstacles. No new conditions would be introduced in the run up to accession. Once all the political and acquis-related criteria had been met, once the financial and institutional framework was firmly in place, the accession treaties would be signed. Talk of delay did not make any sense, as a rigid timetable had at no stage been agreed on. The Commission's working hypothesis had always been and continued to be 2002 for readiness on the part of the existing members.
On Hungary specifically, the Roma programme was worthy of particular praise, though it had a number of deficiencies. The Copenhagen political criteria had all been met and the country had a functioning market economy. The unprecedented economic boom Hungary was now experiencing was clinching proof of the dividends that reform paid in the long run. Agriculture, the health care sector, state aids, justice and home affairs, the free movement of goods, transport and the environment still had to be worked on, though improvements had been noted.
In response to comments from the floor, Mr Verheugen became rather impatient. He was conscious of the problem of Euroscepticism waxing the more protracted the accession process became. By the same token he knew the arguments proffered by those inimical to the project of EU integration. However certain rules had to be respected, the current Member States had interests at stake just as much as Hungary and co-ordination had to take place amongst them. Persuading 15 states to agree was not an easy task and until greater clarity has been achieved on matters such as transfer payments, regional policy and the general budget no real progress could be made. To become fixated on dates was to miss the point and ignore the real problem.
József Szájer speaks with CER
At the end of the working session, I sounded out the Co-Chairman on the Hungarian side, Mr József Szájer, on Verheugen's position.
CER: Mr Verheugen mentioned that the business of accession dates is not a problem. On the other hand, we are familiar with the Hungarian stance, shared by the other candidate countries, to the effect that they would like some kind of specific date, which could be useful in terms of the pace of preparations at home. To what extent in your opinion does this type of inconsistency influence the steps still to be taken?
József Szájer (JSz): Naturally, it is of influence insomuch as the European Union has to get as far as making a decision about the timetable it wishes to set for itself, and in this respect it is not merely the juncture at which accession will take place, which is interesting, but the whole issue of the pace at which negotiations proceed alongside all the other preconditions leading up to Mr Prodi and the President of the Republic of Hungary at some stage signing the document on Hungarian accession. For that very reason, the actual date of accession itself is not as important to us at the present juncture as the matter of making progress in the current more difficult phase of negotiations and bringing them to a conclusion.
Many procedural issues remain to be examined even though they are not substantive, and there are still very many elements of uncertainty because the actual document, which will be ready at some stage in the future, has to be ratified by all 15 Member States and this is not a short process. It is already quite clear that a process such as this can only be handled on the basis of an unambiguous political resolution on the part of 15 member states in the interests of bringing accession to a swift conclusion. Without such a resolve, accession itself might suffer a serious delay.
At the present moment it seems to us that if there is any possible means for this political decision to be reached at one of the forthcoming important political forums, then the possibility of a swift accession within the foreseeable future will open up, but it is impossible to predict that happening in advance.
CER: Mr Flórián Farkas, President of the Hungarian Roma National Self-Government addressed the problems of the Roma in Hungary. To what extent do the problems of the Hungarian Roma influence Hungarian accession and to what extent will accession help in resolving the Roma's problems?
JSz: The problems of the Roma, as was pointed out here, is a pan-European problem, a social problem not restricted to the countries striving towards accession but is also encountered by the Member States. At the same time, they do form part of accession-related issues and as such prompt the EU to address them itself and to deal with them at a pan-European level. Today, Mr Verheugen also stated in his opinion that this question has to be resolved at European level, since it is not exclusively a matter for the candidate countries to get to grips with, but that a joint programme needs to be launched.
Given that this is the case, I would say that the evaluation of the situation of the Roma in itself will not influence the question of accession. This does not imply by any manner of means that Hungary should fail to do everything in its power to address the issue or that progress should not be made in Hungary as quickly as possible. In order to provide a stimulus towards improvement, the EU makes use of the regular country report, in which this question will be discussed in detail—as was also the case in previous regular reports—and it will assess the implementation and efficiency of the medium-term Roma Programme announced by the government.
As regards the problems of the Roma in Hungary, I believe that it is in the interests of the overwhelming majority—and I include the Roma when I use that term—for Hungary to become a member of the European Union and that accession will entail an increase in Hungary's prosperity and in the standard of living of every Hungarian citizen. As such, it will be an extremely important occurrence. I was particularly delighted to hear the leader of Hungary's Roma Self-Government state personally that the Roma of Hungary are interested in Hungary being integrated.
One of the important results of yesterday's debate was that the Roma issue should not be confused either here in the European Parliament or in the broader context of the EU institutions with the incident, which occurred in Strasbourg, whereby the isolated action of a small group (once again the reference here is to Krasznai) cannot be mixed up with the problems of the Hungarian Roma, comprising several hundred thousand individuals, who see Hungary as the place where they wish to live out their lives and thrive, who wish to earn a living for themselves in Hungary, none of which poses such a major concern accordingly.
An interesting moment of the debate was when we took the initiative in putting the point on providing an introduction to the life of the Roma in Hungary on to the agenda. On the basis of the news in the press, we expected that a great deal of interest would be shown in this matter. The great interest did not materialise, because on average the total number of Members of Parliament in attendance for this item was three and a half.
As I already declared to the Hungarian press half seriously and half in jest, one of these was the presiding Chairman, plus the two Members of the European Parliament responsible for the topic and one other non-Committee member of the European Parliament, so according to the most well-intentioned calculation possible, the turn-out was somewhere between three and four, which does not suggest that the topic provokes such rapt excitement in the European Parliament as readers of the press back home think.
Immediate and medium-term actions
On his return from a personal meeting with Verheugen, I quizzed Mr Farkas about what had been discussed.
CER: Mr Farkas, you exchanged a few words with the EU Commissioner responsible for Enlargement, Mr Verheugen. Could you please inform us of the results of your deliberations?
Flórián Farkas: As to the contents of our deliberations I would like to say that I invited the Commissioner to Hungary, he will be paying a visit next year and I promised him a programme of events, involving him visiting the Roma of rural Hungary. I would like to show him a little of the Roma in Hungary and the circumstances in which they live. We agreed that there could be no delay whatsoever in putting a stop to the discrimination, which exists in Hungary and that the same applies to the poverty, which exists in Hungary at the moment. It is also a problem that must be solved immediately.
The medium-term action plan aimed at helping improve the situation of the Roma will also have to be rethought and, on the basis of my own personal experience in discussions with Hungarian government bodies as well as having listened to what the Hungarian delegation has said here, I can maintain that the Hungarian bodies are willing to co-operate in these matters. This is extremely important.
If the Hungarian government is able to handle properly the National Roma Self-Government system—which has been established in Hungary and today functions as a result of the strength of the Hungarian Roma, their awakening and conscious decision to take their fate into their own hands—then it may very well find itself in a position to export experience, which could stand as a model worthy of emulation by the other countries of Europe. We also entirely agreed on this question.
I also asked him to provide material assistance to the Hungarian government in the interests of furthering the cause of the integration of the Hungarian Roma and to bind the Hungarian government to an obligation to implement this programme quickly. We agreed on this and I also deem it to be very important.
The reasoned and objective tone of the debate ultimately bore fruit in the final version of the draft resolution, which represented the culmination of the JPC's labours where stern and barely concealed disapproval was replaced by a note of cautious optimism in the paragraph on the Roma:
8. expresses its hope that the medium-term measures intended by the Hungarian government to improve the disadvantaged situation of the Roma community (particularly in the fields of education, employment, healthcare and housing) will provide a useful means for integrating that community into Hungarian society on a basis of mutual understanding; welcomes the fact that in Hungary a system of direct representation, which has been unique in Europe so far, has been established by setting up minority self-governments and by aiming at their effective and efficient operation.
To conclude with a personal remark, I believe that the move towards accession will continue to have a positive impact on the situation of the Roma, though I harbour certain doubts about money alone being the remedy to all ills. There is no doubt in my mind that the resources currently allocated are but a drop in the ocean compared with the damage that has been done over the years, but we must concentrate on the social and cultural aspects of the problems as well.
We need to foster an entirely new, inclusive mindset, whereby Roma and non-Roma stand side by side, as equals, working together for the common good of our nation. I have every confidence that this can be achieved, though it will take a (perhaps painfully) long time. In a certain sense we are what others perceive us to be. A setback in terms of bad publicity is a slur on our reputation. That the Roma issue is taken seriously by the EU means that we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand any longer, pretending that the problem will go away if we ignore it. This is healthy. There is no wound as treacherous as a festering wound.
Let us follow the admirable lead taken by Flórián Farkas and confront the less attractive side of our heritage, the underbelly of prejudice and the injustice of deprivation. If we show but a fraction of his dignity and courage we shall make progress indeed.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 16 October 2000
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