Speech by Verhagen at Council of Europe's Expert Committee on Roma and Travellers

Thank you Mr Chairman. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure to welcome you to The Hague for this meeting of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on Roma and Travellers. Roma advancement deserves our full and undivided attention. It is simply unacceptable that in our part of the world, an entire group of people is left behind on such a large scale. In view of the values we stand for in the Council of Europe, we should not let this situation persist.

It is high time that we all combine our efforts and start practising what we preach. The legal framework – with the principle of non-discrimination as its solid foundation – is firmly in place. It is absolutely clear that Roma are entitled to the same basic rights as everyone else, without exception. Individual states, which have primary responsibility for improving the sorry state that some of their citizens live in, have agreed on policies to address Roma exclusion and marginalisation. What is lacking, however, is strict compliance with the legal obligations states have assumed and consistent implementation of policies aimed at improving the situation. This is a major concern for me. The Netherlands is doing its best to move this process forward. So I am very pleased that we are hosting today’s meeting.

We want to make the most of our time together. Therefore we organised a working group yesterday, chaired by Ambassador Jacobovits de Szeged, to discuss stepping up practical cooperation among international organisations. Representatives of the Council of Europe, OSCE, UNHCR, UNDP, World Bank and European Commission agreed to exchange information and increase transparency. I welcome these initial steps forward and trust that every organisation will follow the recommendations. It’s crucial for international efforts to complement and reinforce one another. Otherwise a great deal of energy and goodwill will go to waste, and the Roma will suffer.

Another event that took place yesterday was the public hearing on education. Education has been called the ‘silver bullet’ that should kill both poverty and despair. I agree; education is key to a better future. At yesterday’s hearing, which was organised by FORUM, the Dutch Institute for Multicultural Development, experts presented best practices as well as obstacles that may arise in educating Roma in the Netherlands. I know yesterday’s findings will be discussed in greater detail by experts today. And there will be a site visit to Ypenburg tomorrow, so that you can better acquaint yourselves with how Roma actually live in the Netherlands. I welcome an open debate on Roma education. I hope it will result in concrete suggestions and recommendations, which the Dutch government and other stakeholders can take to heart.

As you heard yesterday, the Netherlands does not have one national policy specifically on Roma. This is partly because the number of Roma in the Netherlands is quite low – an estimated five to ten thousand – but it is also a matter of principle. Rather than developing policies aimed solely at Roma at national level, the government seeks to integrate specific concerns for disadvantaged people in our society into mainstream policies: on education, employment, housing etc. We believe this is the most effective way of addressing these problems. We leave implementation to the local level, closest to where the problems occur. I strongly believe in this principle of giving responsibility to the most appropriate actors and not trying to centralise everything to little purpose.

But of course the national government should create the conditions for local governments to act effectively. So we facilitate municipalities’ work, with the help of the Institute for Multicultural Development FORUM. FORUM and the municipalities are working together on a policy paper describing the problems Roma and Sinti encounter in integrating into Dutch society, and making an inventory of good practices that can help resolve those problems. I welcome the plan to establish a national Roma support centre next spring. This centre of knowledge and expertise, to be created with assistance from the Foundation for the Restitution of Sinti and Roma Rights, will play a major role in helping municipalities institute Roma-related policies. It should thus contribute to a lasting improvement in the situation of Roma in the Netherlands.

The accession of new member states in Central Europe has highlighted the responsibility of the European Union. These countries’ transformation has often aggravated Roma suffering. Moreover, with the freedom of movement that Schengen brings, the problems Roma face have become common to all member states. So I applaud the European Commission’s initiative in examining the main instruments and policies available to member states to improve the situation of Roma across the EU. This should help member states shoulder their responsibilities, in close consultation with Roma and other disadvantaged groups. The Commission’s Communication of July 2008 also led to the EU’s first Roma Summit ever, in September. That Summit will be followed up at the European Council in December, where the EU’s leaders will adopt a declaration on the plight of Roma in Europe and ways to alleviate it. I am confident that now that this issue is on the Council’s agenda, it is not likely to be taken off again. I know future Presidencies – the Czech Republic is next in line – will strive to maintain the momentum.

The Netherlands will do its best to make sure they do. The EU is to my mind first and foremost a community founded on shared values: freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. We can ill afford to let the Roma fall further behind, no matter how challenging their integration into our societies may be. We owe it to ourselves to dramatically improve the situation of Roma. How credible is it to fight child labour in other continents when the majority of Roma children in Europe do not go to school, but have to beg on the streets and help their parents collect scrap? Human rights apply to all people, at all times and in all places this is the basic principle of the human rights strategy the Dutch government adopted a year ago, ‘Human Dignity for All’. This strategy specifically mentions Roma and Sinti as people that are systematically discriminated against on the grounds of their origin and ethnicity. Discrimination leads to social exclusion, which in turn perpetuates discrimination. It becomes a vicious circle.

The Netherlands is helping and will continue to help where it can to break this circle. Through our pre-accession programme MATRA we fund projects specifically aimed at Roma, for example in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Croatia. Because we believe that it is crucial for Roma to take ownership of their own future, we fund NGOs that are run by Roma, such as Spolu International. Through our Human Rights Fund, we cofinance Spolu’s work in South-Eastern Europe to bring together and strengthen local Roma organisations. And we fund a number of other local projects throughout the region. We were also the first major donor to contribute to the Roma Education Fund. The organisation of today’s meeting is another example of our commitment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A recent article in The Economist quoted a Brussels official who said, ‘We don’t lack the laws and we don’t lack the money. The problem is political will.’ If it depends on me, the problem will not be political will.

I wish you all a fruitful and constructive discussion.

Thank you.