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25th May 2020

Soros: Western Balkans could 'set example' on Roma integration

The day Western Balkan countries join the EU, they will provide an example for the older member states on how to treat Roma minorities.

This is the hope of Georges Soros, the hedge-fund billionaire who funds liberal causes through his Open Society Foundations (OSF) in New York.

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  • Soros: 'EU has a lot more influence in accession countries than over its members' (Photo: World Economic Forum)

”I hope this initiative will help accession countries set an example for what can be achieved," Soros said in Brussels on Thursday (9 June).

”The EU has a lot more influence in accession countries than over its members,” he added.

He spoke at the launch of Roma Integration 2020, a project aiming to reduce disparities between Roma and the rest of society in seven EU-hopefuls: Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.

The project will receive funding from the European Commission and Open Society Foundations. It is implemented by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), a cooperative framework for countries in South East Europe.

EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said Roma integration is an important element in the enlargement process.

”Before accession, countries will need to prove tangible progress in the fields of education, employment, health, housing and civil documentation”, he said.

Soros helped put Roma on Europe’s political agenda by his involvement in the Decade of Roma Inclusion, an initiative that run from 2005 to 2015 in 12 countries with significant Roma communities.

The governments of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain committed to end discrimination.

But many problems remain.

According to the European Commission’s report on implementation of the EU framework for Roma, they are still more likely to suffer from unemployment, bad health and inadequate housing that the rest of society.

The commission has launched infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Slovakia and, two weeks ago, Hungary demanding that they stop putting Roma children in schools for mentally disabled people.

But while there is still a lot to do, Soros noted, discrimination of Roma has become less of a concern to the EU in the wake of the global refugee crisis.

Overall, ”it’s not a good time for open societies”, he told journalists.

Why Roma policies failed

Zeljko Jovanovic, director of Roma Initiatives Office at Open Society Foundations, told EUobserver that he was hopeful the new initiative would deliver more than what previous Roma integration projects had achieved in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

”We have learnt painful lessons,” he said.

The problem, he explained, was that Roma rights were never mainstreamed into candidate countries’ general policies, budgeting procedures, and administrative work, during the previous EU enlargements.

Instead, the problems of Roma were addressed by ad hoc projects whose results ended with their financing.

”Education, for instance, has always been the top priority for those working on Roma issues,” Jovanovic said. ”Most of the efforts, money and time went to this.”

But the Commission’s infringement procedures have all related to the segregation of children.

”It’s because we invested in Roma teacher assistants, but we never reformed the dysfunctional systems themselves. School inspectorates never cared to control what children face in schools and what principals and teachers do about that", Jovanovic said.

”We cannot see the change only by ways of high-level political declarations,” he added. ”Because when elections, or other issues come in, they take over the stage.”

Hahn had vowed to pay more attention to implementation of promises in the process of enlargement negotiations.

But what would it take to change the situation inside the EU?

Not that much can be done at EU level, Jovanovic said.

”We need local politicians to communicate about Roma, explain that they face the same problems as everyone, but suffer graver consequences", he noted.

”But that requires courage, which is currently lacking," he said.

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