Irish Presidency of the EU urged to end the misuse of EU budget.

May 6, 2013
Source: NUI Galway Center for Disability Law and Policy

As our Taoiseach and Tanaiste head off to Brussels today for talks with the head of the European Commission and European Parliament in a bid to resolve an escalating political impasse over the EU’s seven-year budget, they need to take heed of the strong message sent by an international conference held at NUI Galway.

A major international conference held at NUI Galway on Saturday in association with the Irish Presidency of the EU urges the EU to end the practice of using taxpayers’ money to build expensive and needless institutions for persons with disabilities and others.

There are approximately 1.2 million persons with disabilities living in institutions in the EU right now.  Apart from being hugely expensive this is a clear violation of the new UN disability treaty that the EU has ratified.  Normally States provide their own funding for this and are fully answerable to the UN for violation of the right to live independently and be included in the community.  However the EU also indirectly funds these institutions through the Structural Funds.  Figures vary but the overall amount directly involved in the malpractice runs into tens if not hundreds of millions.  This practice must end.  Every cent spared and re-directed to more worthy ends is a gain for European citizens and taxpayers.

The Structural Funds exist for all the right reasons – to transfer wealth to lesser developed regions of Europe and demonstrate European solidarity.  They have lifted millions out of poverty and have transformed the physical and social landscape of Europe.  However, they leave a massive amount of discretion in States to decide on how those Funds are to be used.  Unfortunately, this open-ended discretion has meant that some of the Funds have been used in some Member States to open new institutions and thus flout the UN disability treaty. 

A once-in-a-generation opportunity now arises to end this practice. New Regulations governing the Funds are being finalized to cover the period 2014-2020.  The conference called on the Irish Presidency of the Council to take a lead in the negotiations and to urge the necessary changes on its partners.

Everyone is agreed that the Funds have to play a more strategic role in advancing key European priorities – especially the generation of a ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive’ economic and social model.  Eliminating waste and inappropriate expenditure is especially important in times of fiscal restraint.  Since the EU has ratified the UN disability treaty this too should form an inseparable part of this overall agenda for change. 

To its immense credit, the European Commission proposed that specific mention be made of the UN disability treaty in the new regulations.  Indeed, it proposed that Member States should not be allowed to have access to the monies unless they could establish that they were committed to moving from institutional care to community based living and that they had a meaningful plan to implement and monitor the convention.  These conditions were removed by Council some months ago.  The Council (now under the Irish Presidency), the European Parliament and the Commission are currently in intense negotiations to put final shape on the Regulations.  If these conditionalities are not re-instated in the Regulations then it is entirely predictable that taxpayers’ monies will again be spent on expensive and needless institutions which flagrantly violate the UN disability treaty.  It is entirely predictable (nay certain) that this will engage legal liability for the EU before the UN.

The conference was held at NUI Galway (Centre for Disability Law) and co-directed by Senator Katherine Zappone.  Senator Zappone said: “This is a major test of the sincerity of the EU to comply with international law and especially the new UN treaty on disability.  We all have an ethical responsibility to do no wrong and if it is predictable that the Funds will be mis-used then the EU has both an ethical and a legal obligation to ensure this can never happen.  We certainly cannot preach to others around the world if we fail to get our own house in order.” 

Two Minsters spoke at the conference: Minister of State Kathleen Lynch T.D., and Brian Hayes T.D.  Speaking after the event Minster Hayes wrote: “I want to reassure you, an audience looking for European leadership in the area of independent living, that Ireland as president of the EU is doing everything in our power to broker an agreement between the institutions.”  This is a very hopeful sign and the conference urged the Minister to ensure Ireland takes an active lead in Council.  The conference reminded the Minister that Ireland’s policy on community living is admirable and strikingly at odds with how EU monies are spent.

The conference brought together a broad range of European actors including the European Disability Forum, Age Platform Europe, The European Association of Service Providers, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Group of human rights commissions, the Open Society Institute, the European Foundation Centre, the European Commission and others.  It was also addressed by the Executive Director of the new US Federal Administration for Community Living and Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn on the importance of using research to provide clear blueprints for positive change.  Full proceedings will be on the NUI Galway CDLP website shortly: www.nuigalway.ie/cdlp