Peter Pollák: Giving a voice to the vulnerable
As the first Slovak MEP of Roma origin, Peter Pollák is a man on a mission, determined to use his European platform to raise awareness of the plight of Roma people and strengthen their rights across the EU.
What brought you to national politics in the first place? And why did you want to move to a European platform and become an MEP?
I am part of an estimated 12 million Roma community that has been living in Europe for centuries. In many EU Member States, like my own, many Roma live in remote parts of towns and villages where they drink water from streams, have no sewage systems or access roads and where the education systems fail to prepare them for the labour market.
While the EU is talking about digitalisation and artificial intelligence, this is the reality for Roma people living in the EU in the twenty-first century. I have worked with Roma people for many years as part of the NGO sector. I have heard experiences and perspectives from all levels - from local to regional, up to national.
I got to a stage where I understood that the problems of the people are solved by the politicians, since they have the power to bring about change. This was the reason why I decided to enter into politics.
It was in 2005 when I decided to submit my candidacy to the regional Parliament. However, it was only in 2012 when I made it to the Slovak National Parliament as the first deputy of Roma origin. I did everything I could to advocate for Roma children to have equal access to quality education and for their parents to have decent jobs.
I am convinced that the voices of people living in the poorest and least-developed regions of the EU should not be forgotten and should also be heard in the European Parliament.
"Roma still live in enormous poverty on the edge of European societies, without access to drinking water and basic infrastructure"
The EU has long stressed the need for better Roma integration but how successful, or otherwise, has this been? Can we say Roma are now integrated into European society?
In 2011, the European Union adopted the first Roma-specific strategic document, the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020, calling on Member States to develop or revise already existing Roma integration strategies.
For each of the key areas of life, such as education, employment, access to healthcare and housing, it defined EU goals as ensuring that all Roma children complete at least primary school; to reduce the employment gap between Roma and the rest of the population; to reduce the gap in health status between the Roma and the rest of population, and to close the gap between the share of Roma with access to housing and public utilities such as water, electricity and gas and that of the rest of the population.
Despite the measures which have been put in place by the EU for implementation by Member States, it is with a great deal of regret that I must conclude that only limited progress has been achieved.
Roma still live in enormous poverty, on the edge of European societies, without access to drinking water and basic infrastructure. Roma children are placed in special schools and classes for mentally disabled children, although they do not have any disability. Their handicap is the fact that they come from poor families.
The education systems of the Member States they live in have no real interest in investing in their education and turning them into fully-fledged citizens. Europe cannot afford to let these children not fulfil their potential, especially in the current environment of labour market shortages.
"If Hitler had won the war, I would not be here, just because I am Roma"
The EU framework for national Roma integration strategies comes to an end in 2020 and a new initiative is being prepared. What measures would you like to see implemented in the future to foster more Roma inclusion in the EU?
Indeed, the reflections and consultations on the post-2020 EU Roma inclusion strategy are already taking place. Next year, it will be decided what it will look like and what support will be given to it. There is still a long way to go. Roma inclusion is a very complex issue for which there is no one ideal solution.
A comprehensive approach plays a key role together with the active participation of Roma in shaping their future. If the EU wants Roma people to be fully-fledged EU citizens it must have more ambitious goals for them. For example, in education, we must ensure that all Roma children complete primary schools at the very least.
Efforts must be intensified to ensure that these people obtain the qualification which allows them to succeed in the labour market and to live a decent life, to pay taxes and raise their children without fear of hatred or discrimination.
However, to achieve this we need systemic policy changes, whereby education and employment, for example, are more inclusive, affordable and accessible to all social groups, including the most disadvantaged such as Roma.
My country, Slovakia, for example, has been the world’s largest producer of cars per capita. It imports its labour force from Ukraine and Serbia despite the fact that there is a large group of long-term unemployed people, Slovak citizens such as Roma, who are left behind.
In a 2010 study of the World Bank, it says that the full integration of Roma in the labour market in countries with sizable Roma populations, could bring economic benefits of an estimated €0.5 billion per year.
Increasing the participation of Roma in the labour market would improve economic productivity, reduce social assistance payments and increase income tax revenue. According to the same the World Bank study, the tax benefits of integrating Roma are estimated to be around €175m per year, per country.
Would more “role models” for Roma help them achieve personal and professional advancement?
Roma role models are not only important in inspiring young people who can identify with them, they also play an important role in breaking prejudice and stereotypes that are often directed towards Roma.
Roma role models are setting an example for others that change is possible no matter what environment you come from. It is important that Roma role models are proud of their identity and are present in all spheres of public life.
The testimony of their lives proves that Roma are no different to anyone else; they have same dreams and aspirations.
"I am convinced that the voices of people living in the poorest and leastdeveloped regions of the EU should not be forgotten and should be heard in the European Parliament"
Along with your fellow MEP, Romeo Franz, you will be co-hosting EU Roma week in the European parliament at the end of march. How did EU Roma week come about and what do you hope to achieve?
The EU Roma Week provides a unique opportunity to raise awareness and to debate the most important issues facing Roma people. It also provides an opportunity to showcase the Roma culture.
Next year will mark the 5th edition of EU Roma Week. It is normally organised around International Roma Day which is celebrated on April 8. However, this year it will take place on March 23-26. As for what I hope to achieve: next year will be crucial in defining the direction of the future of the EU Roma inclusion process beyond 2020.
My ambition, together with MEP Romeo Franz, is to present the political manifesto which will include forward looking ideas and priorities. The EU Roma Week will not be the only event in which we both would like to shed a light on Roma issues. On January 28, we are organising a specific event in memory of Roma and Sinti holocaust victims on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Roma holocaust is often called the forgotten holocaust - it remains under-studied and neglected. Before I became a deputy in the European Parliament, I spoke to young people in schools about the rise of extremism, what it means, what it brought about in the past and what it could bring about in the future, if we remain inattentive and ignorant.
I used to tell them that if Hitler had won the war, I would not be here, just because I am Roma. That’s why it is so important to discuss, to learn and deepen the knowledge of the darkest chapter of our history, also keeping in mind how it affected Roma people.
Learning about the history and having a better understanding of it is not about making any person or group of people feel guilty. However, ignoring or neglecting the history can lead to repetition of the same mistakes.
As a Vice-president of Parliament’s Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, what can you bring to the table to effect positive change in EU-Russia relations?
I wanted to be a part of this Committee and feel very honoured to be elected as its Vice-President. Russia is for many EU Member States a key partner. Paradoxically, on a national level, the communication and development of mutual relationships with Russia work better than at EU level. I see a lot of room for improvement here.
In my opinion, the communication between both Parliaments could be strengthened and improved. A lack of communication means moving further away from each other. We should not be avoiding discussions on sensitive issues such as Ukraine or Crimea. So this is one of the areas where I would like to bring about positive change.
"Increasing the participation of Roma in the labour market would improve economic productivity, reduce social assistance payments and increase income tax revenue"
By the end your mandate what do you hope you will have achieved/ contributed and what do you want your legacy as an MEP to be?
I personally would like to see European policies being more responsive to the needs of people such as Roma, who live in poor, remote regions of the European Union, so that they can also benefit from them, fulfil their potential and live decent lives as true Europeans.
What advice would you give to a young Roma person looking to enter a career in politics?
What we have seen in the past, and it is still the case, that policies for Roma are decided without Roma. Roma should be in the driving seat for change, not just passive spectators.
It is crucial that Roma are involved in the design and creation of mainstream policies, as well as the policies which directly impact their lives. Therefore, the political participation of Roma is key.
The European and national institutions should be leading by example on this. What advice would I give to a Roma person looking to enter a career in politics? To be pro-active, to be proud of their identity and not to give up when faced with obstacles. I firmly believe that where there is a will, there is a way.
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