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29th Aug 2016

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Europe's disabled people feel strengthened by meeting with EU presidents

  • Europe’s disabled people feel taken seriously for the first time in Brussels. From left to right: Buzek, Barroso, Vardakastani, and Van Rompuy. (Photo: European Disability Forum)

Europe’s disabled people feel they are being taken seriously for the first time in Brussels after a joint meeting with all three presidents of the European Union at the same time.

“It was the first time that disability issues were discussed on this level,” Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the European Disability Forum (EDF), told EUobserver.

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Vardakastanis and his colleagues on Tuesday (6 December) met with Jerzy Buzek, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy, presidents of the European Parliament, Commission and Council respectively, to talk about the role of the EU in improving the lives of Europe’s estimated 80 million people with some sort of disability.

While the three EU leaders meet separately with political dignitaries all the time, a meeting with the EU triumvirate has until now only been accessible to religious leaders.

The economic crisis and the austerity the EU has imposed have made life more difficult for the most vulnerable, Vardakastanis told the EU leaders.

“Europeans with disabilities feel the results of the crisis as a procrustean bed applied to their services, their income, and their ability to live independently, their everyday life,” he said.

Van Rompuy conceded that “when we discuss macro-economic policy, we tend to forget the concrete situation of persons with disabilities.”

The leaders agreed to a set of proposals made by the EDF, including inviting the representatives to regular meetings with the commission and to a meeting with the three presidents at least once every two years.

“The fact that they agree to meeting bi-annually and also in between, points in the direction that they are taking us seriously,” said Vardakastanis.

Similar high-level meetings are held once a year with religious leaders and those of non-confessional groups, a requirement included in the Lisbon Treaty. But those meetings are often considered to be little more than photo opportunities.

Vardakastanis, however, maintains that his meeting with the presidents was more than that.

“We were able to speak about everything,” he said. “The meeting even took half an hour longer than the one hour that was planned.”

But the EDF is still waiting for concrete action.

In December last year, the EU adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Since then, however, little progress has been made. Implementation is slow and not expected to be completed before the year 2020.

“The crisis should not prevent us from advancing in the implementation of the UN Convention,” President Barroso said. “There will not be any postponed legislation because of this crisis.”

Vardakastanis says that Barroso also promised to draw up guidelines that would ensure any new legislation would take into account the UN Convention.

“We will be watching closely,” said Vardakastanis. “We are going to return.”

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