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Monday, 12 December 2005 - Strasbourg OJ edition

19. European Year of Equal Opportunities for All

  President.   The next item is the report (A6-0366/2005) by Mrs Roure, on behalf of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, on the proposal for a decision of the European Parliament and the Council on the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All (2007) – Towards a Just Society [COM(2005)0225 – C6-0178/2005 – 2005/0107(COD)].


  László Kovács, Member of the Commission. Mr President, the European Union can be proud of its achievements in the field of non-discrimination, which place it amongst the most advanced regions in the world in this respect. In 2000, we adopted two key directives: one which outlaws racial discrimination, and another that bans direct and indirect discrimination in employment on the grounds of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. However, legislation alone is not enough to counter discrimination effectively. Many Member States are falling behind with their transposition schedules, and where national legislation complies with the European directives, it is unfamiliar to the general public and not properly implemented.

The Commission has therefore proposed, inter alia, to declare 2007 the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All. It is intended to make the public aware of the benefits of a just society that offers everybody the same opportunities, irrespective of sex, ethnic or racial origin, religion or belief, capacity, age or sexual orientation. It will highlight the benefits of diversity as a source of social and economic vitality, which Europe must acknowledge and make use of. This diversity enriches the social fabric of Europe and is a vital component of its economic prosperity.

The discussions and activities during the year will be organised around three main topics. Firstly, the right to equality and protection against discrimination. A key element will be to make the general public aware of the fact that equal treatment does not necessarily mean identical treatment, but that, sometimes, different treatment is required in different situations. Secondly, recognition of the positive contribution that everybody, whatever their personal characteristics, makes to society. The aim will be to make the public aware of the rewards and advantages accruing in Europe through diversity. Thirdly, better representation in society of disadvantaged groups: a debate will be initiated on ways to rectify the under-representation and under-participation of certain groups in society. Fourthly, respect and tolerance vis-à-vis and among the various communities that make up European society.

Civil society and the social partners will be fully involved in implementing the European Year. One of the key principles of implementing the Year will be that activities will be decentralised at Member State level. To get this message across effectively, the Year must be implemented as closely as possible to the citizens. Finally, it must be ensured that, during the Year and in all the Member States, equal importance is attached to all the grounds for discrimination set out under Article 13 of the Treaty, namely discrimination based on sex, ethnic or racial origin, religion or beliefs, disability, age or sexual orientation.


  Martine Roure (PSE), rapporteur. (FR) Mr President, there are no institutional barriers separating one group from another, and there is nothing to prevent anyone from demonstrating their worth and being rewarded for it. Specific systems, in the form of examinations and competitions leading to qualifications, have been set up to assess the aptitude of each individual. Access to the highest offices is, in principle, open to all, without distinction.

However, although people are equal in the eyes of the law, they are not always equal in reality. At the very least, we do not seem to have achieved equality of opportunity. Despite a few examples of spectacular social advancement, cited with particular smugness given that they are such exceptional cases, people do not have equal chances of success, and a society that does not allow all its members to demonstrate their capabilities harbours the seeds of serious frustrations and tensions. Neither effectiveness nor justice benefit from this state of affairs.

If that is indeed the situation, around two centuries after the publication of the Declaration on the Rights of Man, we need to understand why. Should we conclude that we have no prospect of success? Are our democratic principles merely a mirage, an ideal that recedes as fast as we can approach it? We refuse to accept this.

It is true that inequalities tend to mount up. The children of poor families are, on average, less likely to reach a high level of education. People with a poor level of education are less likely to achieve a high social standing or to have a well-paid career. The number of women in high-level positions, of whatever kind, is still very limited, if not infinitesimal. Power still remains, in general, the privilege of men. Disabled people still do not have the right to a proper place in our societies. Homosexuals still suffer discrimination far too often, and some still consider this to be a normal state of affairs. Many men, women and children are left by the wayside because of their skin colour or ethnic origin.

Do we have the right to put up with this situation? Do we have the right to conclude that nothing can be done to bring reality closer to the democratic ideal? The obstacles may seem huge, an inherent part of society itself. But denying their existence will not help us to overcome them. We need to face the facts and condemn them. For example, discrimination often forces people into unskilled labour and insecure jobs that almost always provide poor pay and therefore a poor standard of living.

People suffering such discrimination find it very difficult to access decent accommodation and healthcare. They have virtually no chance of promotion via continuing vocational training, and they have few leisure opportunities.

Under such conditions, their children’s education is mortgaged right from the start. They are deprived of the material conditions, relationships and emotional environment that they need in order to plan their lives. And there is a considerable risk that they will end up in the same situation as their parents.

In short, one disadvantage engenders another. Someone who suffers from one aspect of the effects of social inequality is at serious risk of suffering from other aspects. Although we can intuitively recognise this phenomenon of the accumulation of disadvantages, it has not yet been extensively studied.

I would therefore like to call on the Council and the Commission to make a firm commitment to combat all forms of discrimination in all countries of the Union, particularly as part of the Year of Equal Opportunities for All.

We want you to make a firm commitment, Commissioner. We listened to what you had to say just now. We were happy with it, but you will understand that we will be keeping a close eye on how it is put into practice, and I will conclude by reminding you that, on 28 August 1963, in Washington, in his famous speech ‘I have a dream’, Martin Luther King evocatively expressed the hope, the dream of a world of freedom and justice for all. ‘I have a dream’, he said, ‘that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’.

Let us have a common dream that, by the end of the decade, we will finally have a Union without discrimination, a Union that gives every child a chance. Let us have a common dream, Commissioner.


  Patrick Gaubert, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. – (FR) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to start by thanking Mrs Roure for her work on this report. The European Union has made a commitment to promoting basic rights and equal opportunities for all. We have some of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in the world. But ask yourself this: are our fellow citizens aware of the European anti-discrimination directives? Do they know that all the Member States are obliged to transpose those directives into their national legislation? Unfortunately, I think the answer is no. That is why the initiative of launching the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All is a very constructive one.

A media event on this scale is an effective method of increasing awareness and providing information. Equality of opportunity is a policy involving specific measures that aim to help the disadvantaged by establishing fair access to rights, goods and services. For equality to become a reality, we need to combat all types of discrimination. Every day, men and women suffer discrimination when they try to access jobs and services, particularly due to their sex, their origin or their religion. That is unacceptable, and we cannot continue to tolerate such practices.

The activities that the EU will support in 2007 and the awareness and demonstration campaigns are a step in the right direction. It is also vital to have a real political will for this, and all the Member States must join forces, without exception. Full implementation of our anti-discrimination legislation therefore remains a top priority. It is distressing to see that certain Member States have been condemned for not having correctly transposed the European directives in this field.

Tomorrow, Parliament must send a strong message to our fellow citizens by adopting this report by a large majority. The fight against discrimination is not just fought by the left or by the right. It is fought by men and women of conviction with a common objective: fighting for respect for human rights and, more specifically, against discrimination of all kinds.


  Katalin Lévai, on behalf of the PSE Group. – (HU) The key message of the European Parliament in response to the proposal of the Commission is to fight against all forms of discrimination, and this is why I am particularly pleased to congratulate Mrs Martine Roure on this report. I would like to emphasise that the equality of opportunities – as the first human right formulated by the European Union – is a horizontal area stretching across all sectors. Therefore the enforcement of equal opportunities cannot be of utmost priority for Parliament only, but also for the EU, and for all government bodies of the Member States. I particularly welcome that President Borrell has set up the high-level Committee on Equal Opportunities, and I am proud to work as one of its members. I would like to call attention to a recently published important work of the Committee, which mentions the benefits arising from applying the principles of diversity when a workplace interviews and employs its workforce. Workplaces that implement such a policy, companies that take into account cultural diversity are more competitive in the long term, and in some cases also experience increased efficiency in the short or medium term. Therefore equal opportunities are not an obstacle to the increase of economic competitiveness, but act as a strengthening factor. I would also like to stress the individual responsibility of Member States in preparing for the Year of Equal Opportunities, and would like to propose a number of initiatives myself. I have organised the first public Parliamentary hearing in Hungary, which will take place next week, when participating citizens will talk about their personal experiences to illustrate the discrimination they have suffered. A blind girl who has not been admitted to university because of her blindness, and a young Roma man will talk about their lives. I would like to make this customary in Hungary, and to introduce in my country the personal hearings that we experience here.


  Sophia in 't Veld, on behalf of the ALDE Group. Mr President, firstly I would like to thank the rapporteur for all the good work she has done: it was not an easy task. The Year of Equal Opportunities for All is very welcome because fundamental rights are the close to the hearts of the European citizens and they must be made a reality for all citizens. Against this backdrop there are two issues I would like to raise.

First, there is the budget. I think that everybody in this room will agree that it is embarrassingly insufficient – EUR 15 million for fundamental rights! If I compare that to the money we spend on a lot of other things that are less valuable than fundamental rights, I have to say it gives me stomach pains.

The second issue is decentralised implementation. That is very good, but I am rather worried about the possibility of cherry-picking by the Member States. I am not entirely reassured by all the warm words we have heard in recent years about fundamental rights, because the reality is different and the Commissioner himself mentioned that some Member States are still lagging behind in the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation. There is still a hierarchy of discrimination and I think that with this programme for the Year of Equal Opportunities for All we should not be encouraging this.

I would like to ask the Commissioner to commit the Commission here and now, publicly and on the record, to ensuring that Member States will use the funds available for this Year to target all forms of discrimination equally. This is not to say anything about the way the money is distributed, but we want certain – let us say – more ‘awkward’ groups that are currently suffering discrimination – homosexuals, certain reglious groups or the Roma, for example – to have equal access to this programme with all the other groups that are suffering discrimination. I am looking forward to a positive answer.


  Jean Lambert, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. Mr President, I too would like to thank the rapporteur for her work, and I appreciate the need for maximum preparation time if the Year of Equal Opportunities is going to have any meaningful impact. That constricted timing has meant that there are one or two areas, as my colleague has just indicated, where we might have liked to tighten things up a little more but have not been able to.

We all hope that the Year will provide an incentive to those Member States that are being particularly tardy on implementing the Article 13 Directives to make progress. Those directives reflect the more positive dimension of the European Union and people need to be aware of their rights. As we have seen on issues such as the Working Time Directive, people all too often do not realise that they have rights, let alone that they can enforce them.

I agree with Mrs Roure that equal opportunities are an important factor in social inclusion and that we need to combat bigotry and prejudice at all levels, whether that is on the street or in government, as it prevents so many people from reaching their potential and prevents society benefiting from their talents.

I also echo the comments made about the money being totally inadequate. When you think about the amount that we, as political parties, spend on our election campaigns to try and persuade people of something different, it is going to take more than the money in the current budget to persuade people that others in their society have rights which should be recognised as well.


  Mary Lou McDonald, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group. Mr President, I too would like to commend the rapporteur for her work in this very important area and to lend my voice to support the call for designation of 2007 as the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All.

We must commit ourselves not just to the concept of equality of opportunity, but equally and crucially to the attainment of equality of outcome. All people should be entitled to their full social, economic and cultural equality. This, of course, encompasses the equality of all people, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, marital or family status, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status or indeed political or religious affiliations. If we are serious about the attainment of equality, we must, on an ongoing basis, not only guarantee equality of opportunity across those categories, but we must be in a position to measure accurately and adequately outcomes as against each of those categories.

We all know that societal inequality is not a natural phenomenon; it is the direct result of power inequalities, and so to address inequality itself, we have to address issues of power in our society, we have to challenge the way things are. I think 2007 as the Year of Equal Opportunities for All can become a platform for just that. I also think that the very fact that this initiative is being suggested is an explicit recognition that we have failed so far in our journey towards equality.

In my own country of Ireland, we are still coming to terms with the legacy of British rule and the continuing partition of our country, along with decades of discrimination in the electoral process, in housing, employment and policing. Celtic Tiger Ireland should be a success story for all the Irish people, and yet we remain one of the most unequal societies not just in the EU but in fact globally.

The Roure report’s focus on both migrants and women is commendable and particularly relevant again to my home country. The European Year must be about much more than raising awareness simply about discrimination. Equality legislation alone will not succeed in tackling the deep-rooted inequalities that exist without the political will of politicians, of policymakers and others to grasp the nettle and comprehensively tackle discrimination.

To that end, may I finish by echoing Mrs Roure’s call for both the Commission and the Council to put their money where their mouth is as regards tackling inequality across the Union.


  Zita Gurmai (PSE). – (HU) 2007 is a very important year for the issues to be resolved in the area of equal opportunities and the implementation of equal opportunities throughout the European Union. Equality of opportunity forms the basis of the common European system of values, and its implementation will promote the enforcement of basic human rights.

This report, which is being prepared with a codecision procedure, addresses all areas of implementation – from the creation of the legislation framework to the definition of financial means – including possibilities of participation of Member States and civil organisations. My honourable colleague Martine Roure has done a considerable amount of work. The most important thing is to apply the regulations already approved and accepted, and to make sure that those affected are aware of the laws enacted in their interest. Therefore we need action, not words. It is not sufficient to implement the principle of equal opportunities at Community level – we must make sure that everybody is aware of the fact that all citizens, regardless of their sex, race or ethnic origin, religion or views, disability, age and sexual orientation, are entitled to equal opportunities and equal treatment.

Continuous information, education, cooperation with civil organisations and European citizens are important. We need campaigns that win over public opinion, and lively social dialogue. A social Europe is inconceivable without the protection of vulnerable social strata and groups that are most exposed to discrimination. Discrimination or exclusion has a hundred faces: it can be based on race, ethnic origin, religion, age group, sex, physical and mental disabilities. Everybody plays a role in the implementation of equal opportunities, from government bodies to national authorities, from the civil society to individual European citizens. Solidarity is the most appropriate and the most expedient approach to the fight for equal opportunities. We are all responsible to ensure that every person has equal opportunities to achieve their potential in any area of life. In my amendments I also emphasised that we must make every effort to implement equality, not only at Community and individual levels, but also at regional, national and local levels. I propose that the report be accepted.


  Tatjana Ždanoka (Verts/ALE). – Mr President, like other speakers, I agree with the Commissioner that the EU must have one of the most advanced legislative frameworks to combat discrimination. Therefore, I appreciate that Parliament’s amendments to the Commission proposal enforce the demand that the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All should speed up the transposition process of the two anti-discrimination directives, for which I thank the rapporteur, Mrs Roure.

I have to say, with regret, that my country, Latvia, is among those states that are delaying transposition. New Member States have to be subject to infringement proceedings for violations of Community law in the same way as the old Member States. In that context, NGOs have a vital role to play in raising awareness. The Commission should ensure that especially NGOs representing the groups that suffer discrimination are involved at all stages of the work in connection with the European Year. I hope that the Commissioner will also agree with this.


  László Kovács, Member of the Commission. Mr President, first of all I would like to express my thanks to the honourable Members for the support voiced in this debate. I would like to underline that the Commission shares your commitment to fighting all forms of discrimination in all Member States. The Commission is prepared to urge all Member States to allocate the financial resources accordingly.

Generally speaking, the Commission accepts all the amendments proposed by Parliament. I will not go through them individually, but will concentrate on the key issues.

We support the amendments aimed at reinforcing the involvement of civil society and the implementation of the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All. This will be a key factor in its success. We can accept the increased references to gender mainstreaming. We are fully in agreement with the fact that, during the Year, Member States should attach equal importance to all the grounds for discrimination set out under Article 13 of the Treaty, namely discrimination based on sex, ethnic or racial origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. It is acceptable to set up a simplified system for administrative management of the funds at national level, as proposed. We agree to the increase in the budget from EUR 13.6 million to EUR 15 million.

To sum up, the Commission can accept all the amendments proposed. I conclude by warmly thanking the rapporteur, Mrs Roure, whose commitment to non-discrimination issues was instrumental in bringing the negotiations with the Member States to a successful conclusion. These went very quickly and were very rewarding. The text, which is submitted for your final approval, reinforces the Commission’s initial position and gives us the means to take action in favour of diversity throughout the European Union.


  President.   The debate is closed.

The vote will take place on Tuesday at 12 noon.

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