Nearly 100 participants - representatives of national institutions from Bulgaria and the Western Balkans, the European Commission, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, the Council of Europe and non-governmental organizations participated in the conference "Roma inclusion - where are we standing and where are we heading to?" It was held on 29th of May in Sofia as part of the program of the Bulgarian Presidencyof the Council of EU.
The event has caused contradictory assessments, each of which has its own reason. It has become a collective image of the lack of proper administrative body around Roma integration, as well as of the differences in the so- called Roma movement.
Was there any sense in the event and did it provide something concrete beyond the general discussion?
Personally, it was a Roma event, where I took part, having a lot of hesitations and after setting up my conditions - something I have never done before. Why did I participate and did I legitimize the non-existent NCCEII in this way?
With this text, I am trying to answer these questions, as well as to make some important clarifications.
Was this a NCCEII forum? Absolutely not, although that was the concept of it half an year ago. The forum was conceived as an event of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues (probably few people remember that this is what the NCCEII means and I hope that this institution will officially go in history), with a welcoming speech of Valeri Simeonov and a very limited Roma participation (in the first version of the agenda, the only participating Roma NGO activists were Ivan Ivanov from ERIO and I). In the final version, the conference was an event of the Bulgarian Presidency, without the participation of V. Simeonov, with input from the Minister of Labor, Bisser Petkov, and Roma participation in each panel.
Was it a Roma forum without Roma participation? "Definitely not". Among the speakers were Baki Husseinov (CPD), Yosif Nunev (University of Veliko Tarnovo), Gancho Iliev ("World without borders"), Kiril Vassilev (Association of Initiative Committee – Faculteta neighborhood), I as a chairman of Amalipe Center and Ivan Ivanov , Orhan Usein ... Deputy Chair of the European Parliament Livia Jaroka also participated through video massage. There were many other colleagues in the room from Roma organizations working at local, regional and national levels.
With a statement and an open letter, other organizations have declared their absence of the forum: a position that has its own arguments and deserves respect. Nevertheless, saying that this is the only position of the Roma organizations or of the majority of Roma activists is not only incorrect, but also a false statement. In fact, the participating organizations were those who are actually working on the field. An indirect assessment of Roma attendance was also the fact that international organizations have stepped up their participation in the forum.
Was the conference at a high international level? If I use the answers from the demoscopic studies: "I am not sure, I hesitate." The European Commission was involved through three General Directorates. Other international organizations and institutions have also participated - the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, embassies. Ie. There was international attention.
At the same time, the level of international participation was not impressively high. The European Commission was represented by heads of units, not by directors or general directors, not to mention the Commissioner (s). Ie. the level was not political one. In fact, before serious Roma organizations declared their participation, the EC confirmed only the participation of experts.
There was an international participation, but it was significantly lower than the initial ambition of the organizers, as well as the level expected for an international forum organized by the Bulgarian Presidencyof the Council of EU.
In fact, the international level was commensurate with what we saw at the State of Roma Educational Integration Conference, organized two weeks earlier by the Amalipe Center: although the forum was national, there were representatives of two Directorates General of the EC ( also at the "Head of Unit" level), and seven ambassadors.
Does the Forum legitimated NCCEII? Absolutely not. One of the most reiterated messages was about the inefficiency, ineffectiveness and complete lack of legitimacy of the NCCEII. It was stated not only by the Roma NGO participants (in the presentation of Gancho Iliev and Alexei Pamporov, it was mentioned as one of the main conclusions of the chapter "Management" of the Civil Society Report on the implementation of Bulgarian NRIS, in my statement I stressed it twice), but also by other colleagues - e.g. Zora Popova of the European Center for Minority Rights. It was indicative that no one in the room opposed it.
Of course, I must emphasize that the conference did not focus on the NCCEII.
Was there any conference results? Rather not, especially if we talk about concrete results. With confidence, it can be said that this forum will not change anything significant.
I expected that for two reasons. Firstly, the topic and the agenda were extremely wide and not centered. Talking about Roma integration in general can hardly avoid common talks like "integration is important and we need to work for it." Secondly, Bulgaria, as the organizer and President of the Council of EU, could present a successful experience and generate a debate on policies for educational integration and the use of European funds for Roma inclusion, but not for Roma integration as such. Having an institution such as the non-functioning NCCEII and a chairman like V. Simeonov, the integration process is expected to be stalled and it is naïve to expect that a forum for "integration as such" can bring stakeholders at a political level and lead to concrete results.
Why did I take part in the forum? As I said above, my initial reaction to the idea of an event organized by the NCCEII was negative, because of my overall attitude towards the Council and its current President. Only the position of respected partners in the face of the European Commission and Roma Integration Network organizations that a "Roma" event during the Bulgarian Presidency should happen and should be attended by Roma organizations has made me to set "conditions." Those included the non-participation of the NCCEII President, adequate inclusion of Roma as panelists and the transformation of the conference from a NCCEII event into a forum of the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU. Those constructive proposals were accepted.
I wanted to achieve two things by participating. First of all, to address to the international partners during a forum on the agenda of the Bulgarian Presidency a position that is not only mine: there is no suitable format for Bulgaria to coordinate integration policies and civil society participation. This also applies to many other European countries. Secondly, to put forward ideas for the next programming period, especially concerning the European Social Fund. The time has now come for the adoption of the new regulations (the draft Regulation of European Social Fund + was published on 30 May). This discussion is particularly important now in view of the importance of cohesion policy for the development of most of the public systems in Bulgaria, especially for Roma integration.
See my presentation here.
In addition, participating I reconfirmed a position shared by me and many other Roma activists: we have to boycott the NCCEII and its chair (Amalipe left the Council in 2013 and in June 2017 collected 3200 signatures against the appointment of Valery Simeonov for coordinator of the integration policy) but there are not enough reasons to boycott the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of EU and the inclusion of Roma topic on it. We can criticize the fact that only one Roma related event is included in the Presidency program while the key forums contained now Roma integration elements. This reflects the marginal and segregated place Roma integration occupies in the agenda of Bulgarian public and political life.
Was the conference meaningful? Closer to yes. Despite the predisposed lack of results, the forum made sense in three directions. Firstly, the inclusion of a "Roma" event in the Bulgarian Presidency's program is a positive fact and it would be a good idea for every Presidency of the Council of EU to have a Roma-related event in its program. It would certainly be a bad sign if Bulgaria - the country with the highest percentage of Roma - did not include such an event. Secondly, the lack of adequate "administrative infrastructure" of the integration process in Bulgaria has become evident at the international level. Thirdly, the event also showed the importance of civic organizations as an unavoidable factor in Roma integration as well as their responsibility.