Jun 20, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Here’s the problem with the twisted story from Brussels about how Hungary segregates Roma kids

Infringement procedures – a legal tool designed to make sure European laws are harmonized – arise from time to time for all EU members states. It’s just part of life in a union comprising 28 countries and one set of European acquis.

It’s a pity, however, that sometimes this legal tool is abused for political reasons, to apply pressure on a member state. What’s worse is when this political pressure is hurting the most vulnerable groups. Like this latest infringement procedure that the EU has taken up against Hungary. In this case, Eurocrats use the Roma and poor children to throw another jab at Hungary for disagreeing with Brussels’ disastrous immigration agenda.

An infringement procedure arises when the European Commission claims that a certain law or laws of a member state do not conform with EU law and it ends with one party or the other winning the case in front of the European Court. The details tend to be a bit obscure, interesting mostly for lawyers and other EU-professionals, while news reports on the ruling usually go unnoticed.

Not this time, though. In a press conference at the end of May, Commission Spokesman Christian Wigand announced that the Commission was launching an infringement procedure against Hungary charging that the public school system is segregating Roma children. “Roma children are placed in segregated special needs classes in disproportionately high numbers in Hungary,” the Commission said.

The Hungarian opposition quickly called for the minister’s resignation, and the media, quickly taking up the chorus, echoed the Brussels thesis without looking into the facts. Once again, the accusation was interpreted as a verdict and a legal tool was used to promote a political narrative.

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The truth is that Hungary, like other EU members states, keeps no record on the ethnicity of schoolchildren. It is illegal and, enshrined in law as far back as 1992, intended to prevent the abuse of personal data that was endemic during communism. So how can Brussels confidently say that Roma children are overrepresented here or there to the degree that it’s segregation. How can Brussels have statistics on Hungary’s public education that even the Hungarian government doesn’t have? On what basis can the Commission accuse Hungary of discrimination and segregation?

The answer is this: these accusations are based on reports from civic organizations claiming “statistics” that are never independently verified and who are interested in damaging Hungary’s image in Europe. They do it to justify their own existence or because they’re driving a political agenda. Or both.

For its part, Brussels seems to have a very different idea about how the country’s social inclusion funds should be spent. Earlier this year and occasionally since then, EU officials make statements that suggest member states should channel their social inclusion and health care funds to programs providing for the migrants. In simple words: Brussels wants governments to take money from their own poor and needy and give it to undocumented and illegal migrants. Many of whom might not need it as much as the poor in the underdeveloped eastern regions of the EU.

To this proposal, Hungary answered with a categorical no. In return, we are being accused of segregation, based on reports from NGOs of the pro-migrant Soros network.

In Hungary, children are, as a general rule, assigned to a local neighborhood school in their area. Some parental choice is allowed but only if space is available in the school in question. Certainly, in a country with an estimated Roma population of  seven hundred thousand there are school districts where the majority of children are Roma. But this is not equivalent to deliberate segregation intended to restrict a community’s right to education.

Hungary does have social challenges. Hungary does have social inclusion issues, and there are regions of the country where the majority of the population are Roma. These are almost exclusively settlements near old factories of the Soviet-era heavy (and unsustainable) industrialization the communist regimes built up to hide social inclusion problems and the lack of real jobs. What’s worse is that in the first decades after Hungary’s democratic transition, Socialist-Liberal governments did nothing for these communities, instead increasing the welfare rolls and standing by while multiple generations of families knew nothing but unemployment.

In the past six years, we have been working hard to change these trends but decades of setbacks will not be fixed overnight. Hungary, as president of the European Council in 2011, was the initiator of a European-level strategy for Roma inclusion, just after the Orbán Government assumed office. 

I personally served for over a year as state secretary for Roma Inclusion in the Ministry of Human Resources and learned first hand about the full scope of government policies on Roma inclusion from birth to university. From Safe Start programs that address early childhood education and parenting to study halls that tackle primary school and high school early-leavers. It includes vocational school mentoring programs, scholarships to attend top-ranked high schools feeding into Hungary’s university system, faith-based dormitories, second chance programs for adults and more. Hungary’s government has been actively seeking to address centuries of historical injustice and bring equity and equality to Hungary’s classrooms for Roma. Indeed, credit is due to those Roma NGOs that designed and piloted groundbreaking programs and shared their results for the government to consider.

The Hungarian government is used to such attacks. But dragging the most vulnerable social groups into this political agenda is a new low for Brussels. It aims to hurt the government, but it first and foremost makes it difficult for the life of those working hard to provide adequate schooling for the Roma kids, in order to break the decades-long vicious circle. What we really need instead is a common understanding that allows civilians and churches to do their work teaching in the settlements.