Meeting of European Commissioners Dali and Yourova with non-governmental organizations from Bulgaria

European Commissioners Helena Dali (Equality) and Vera Jourova (Values and Transparency) discussed the implementation of policies for equality, inclusion and participation of the Roma, as well as the difficulties facing the use of European funds with non-governmental organizations from the “Roma Civil Monitoring” consortium in Bulgaria. The meeting was held online on February 22. Along with the European Commissioners, experts from the Directorate Generals of Justice, Employment and Education of the European Commission also participated. From the non-governmental sector, Daniela Mihailova (Equal Opportunities Initiative), Iliana Balabanova (Bulgarian Platform to the European Women’s Lobby), Gancho Iliev (World Without Borders) and Deyan Kolev (Amalipe Center) took part. Ivan Popov from the Education Program Executive Agency and Ahavni Topakbashyan from the Secretariat of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues also took part in the discussion.

During their opening remarks, Commissioners Dali and Jourova emphasized the importance of policies for equality, inclusion and participation of Roma, the partnership between the civil sector and institutions in the implementation of these policies, as well as the political attention that the European Commission pays to the need to implement national Roma strategic frameworks. The use of European funds to support the implementation of Roma policies is imperative, and in this regard, European Commission representatives seek feedback from member states on the difficulties that accompany the process.

Daniela Mihailova emphasized the dissatisfaction of non-governmental organizations with the process of preparation of the Bulgarian National Roma Strategic Framework. Roma organizations made numerous specific proposals to the document, but they were not taken into account. The strategy does not devote enough space to the topic of anti-Roma discrimination, as well as to the promotion of Roma participation, Mihailova pointed out.

Iliana Balabanova drew attention to the importance of the topic of the equality of Roma women. In Bulgaria, domestic violence is a serious problem for the whole society and unfortunately the politicians do not address this problem in an appropriate way. In 2019, the Istanbul Convention was not adopted, and the “public hysteria” that broke out led to the rejection of the topic of violence against women from the public debate. At the proposal of

the Roma organizations, the part “Equality of Roma women” was included in the new National Roma Strategic Framework, but it does not contain specific steps to be taken.

Gancho Iliev emphasized the need for reform in the National Contact Point and in the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues. 10 years ago, most Roma organizations left the Council, proposing how it should be reformed so that it has real powers. Unfortunately, at this point, real change has not been implemented, talks about it were started several times, but were never finished, emphasized Iliev.

Deyan Kolev supported his colleagues and summarized that NGOs are highly dissatisfied with both the process and the quality of the approved National Roma Strategic Framework. The process was not conducted at the political level and primarily involved administrators rather than ministers and other political figures. The new strategy does not contain the chapters “Combating anti-Roma discrimination” and “Promoting Roma participation”, although this was proposed by the new European Roma strategic framework, and Roma organizations made specific texts in this direction. The action plan is a summary of activities that the ministries are already doing; there are no new commitments in it.

Regarding the use of European funds, Kolev pointed out that Bulgaria has made serious progress in this regard. For example, the new programs co-financed by the European Social Fund include the specific objective “Promoting the socio-economic integration of marginalized communities, such as the Roma”, the programs were developed with the active participation of Roma organizations and contain a good mix of specific and general “mainstream” measures addressing the problems of Roma and other vulnerable groups. He thanked the European Commission for the active support of the demands of the Roma organizations, without which these advantages would not have become a reality. At the same time, there are several challenges that prevent the effective use of European funds. For example, the use of 90% of the funds for the so-called “systemic” projects managed by state institutions leads to low innovation: thus the institutions only redistribute funds without undertaking new activities and without any added value. The participation of civil organizations in this type of “system” projects is minimized. A serious problem is the application of “de minimis/state aid” to practically all grant procedures under the Operational Program “Development of Human Resources” and the Operational Program “Science and Education for Intelligent Growth” during the previous and the current program period. This application is completely unargued, since services aimed at marginalized groups are uneconomical and there is no market for them. At the same time, the application of de minimis actually limits the participation of civil organizations and leads to the failure of entire procedures. Kolev appeals to the European Commissioners to assist in the proper implementation of “de minimis/state aid” by the Bulgarian institutions.

At the end of the meeting, commissioners Dali and Yourova emphasized that they hold such meetings in countries with a large Roma community. They pay special attention to the participation of Roma civil organizations and will continue to organize similar periodic discussions.