The European Adventure
On Tuesday 10th July, Travelling Ahead’s Pembrokeshire Gypsy Youth Forum visited the European Parliament in Brussels. The young people, staff from Monkton Priory School, and Save the Children were invited by Derek Vaughan MEP. He is one of four MEPs responsible for representing Wales at the European Parliament. The visit left us with some exciting ideas and potentially crucial breakthroughs but we’ll get to that a bit later…
I started the day separately from the young people, visiting the European Roma Information Office (ERIO), which is situated in a leafy residential suburb of the city. After much walking, sporadic consultations of bus shelter maps, and an acceptance that I looked a bit odd walking around in circles wearing a suit, I finally found my destination. Inside I found Dr Marta Pinto (Policy Officer) and Ivan Ivanov (Executive Director), who kindly welcomed me and were keen to hear about the young Gypsies, Roma and Travellers I work with in Wales. Interestingly, ERIO did not have any links with organisations supporting these communities in Wales so it was great to forge an important link at the European level of advocacy. The conversation moved on to the work ERIO does in trying to cajole the various European political institutions – of which there are many – into action to improve the lives of the 10-12 million Roma living in te European Union. It appears that Roma suffer from the same political problems at this level as at National level. That is; the economic crisis is used as an excuse for inaction, supporting these communities is seen by politicians as a vote-loser, and politicians will even use these groups as handy scapegoats or to gain political capital through being seen to be tough e.g. Sarkozy’s explusion of Roma in France or Basildon Council’s eviction of Dale Farm.
After an hour we said our goodbyes, with a promise that Travelling Ahead would become a member of ERIO’s network of organisations, as I made my way towards the European Parliament. Meanwhile, the Youth Forum members were experiencing what can only be termed ‘chronic-tiredness’. Having spent Monday in school, they flew from the UK to Brussels at midnight. Rather than sleeping and excited about being in a foreign city, the forum explored Brussels during Tuesday morning before we met up in the afternoon. As a result, this meant that when they met Derek Vaughan MEP they were entering roughly their 31st hour of being awake!
Nevertheless, Derek Vaughan MEP was an engaging and down-to-earth speaker. He seemed genuinely interested in the lives of the young people and had been heavily involved in the development of the two local authority owned Gyspy & Traveller sites in Neath Port Talbot during his previous role as leader of that council. Mr Vaughan wrapped up his talk fairly quickly to give more time for questions from the young people. Although some had begun to wilt from their wake-a-thon, Kirby and Ellen in particular asked interesting questions about the right to sites and how Mr Vaughan had become involved with the European Parliament. Most significantly for me, when I and other professionals asked questions about insecure funding of Gypsy & Traveller education in Wales, Mr Vaughan was visibly concerned and offered to help in any way he could, if I would supply him with the key details. This could be a major step forwards for these communities in Wales. We’re seeing a trend towards local authorities devaluing the importance of Traveller Education Services – claiming cuts are a necessary burden to be imposed on services equally. However, it was Mr Vaughan’s own colleague Richard Howitt MEP who said that equality is not about treating everyone the same, it is about giving everyone the same opportunity to succeed. Traveller Education Services go some way towards achieving this for the communities that Travelling Ahead supports and I will be doing all I can to support Derek Vaughan MEP to sustain these services during the transitional period between European funding streams.
Richard Howitt MEP met with us in an unexpected twist on the day. He had heard that his friend, Mr Vaughan, was meeting some constituents from the Gypsy community and came along to share his experiences. During the Dale Farm eviction, he had gone along to support the Human Rights of the residents – constituents of his – but was forcibly removed from the site, for fear that he might end up on the evening news opposing the eviction process! It was great to meet another politician who was clearly passionate about ensuring that these communities obtain the Human Rights that they are entitled to receive. There was just time to invite our hosts to visit Monkton Priory School in Pembrokeshire next term, which was welcomed and accepted by both.
Having left the iconic building and two passionate and helpful MEPs, we met up with younger members of the group who weren’t allowed in because of “procedure” (It later turned out that younger children can be permitted with express permission given by the MEP). During a quiet moment I ask, “So, will you vote when you grow up?” “No” came the reply from a couple of the boys. However, in reality these boys had participated in a mock election just the day before due to the excitement of the upcoming trip. Looking cool amongst your peers and becoming active citizens are two very different things!