As it takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first six months of 2011, one would have thought that the Hungarian government would be bending over backwards to show the world how far it has come since the dark days of the previous regime; that it would be making extra efforts to demonstrate how it embraces fundamental EU values since it entered the Union during the 2004 enlargement. But this does not seem to be the case. At least not where people with disabilities are concerned.
This week, a broad group of local and international civil society organizations representing people with disabilities criticized the government for failing to respect the need to have a real debate about the terms for EU Structural Funds tenders. The government planned a meeting to discuss the tenders, but gave groups less than 24 hours notice of the meeting—making it impossible for organizations to prepare for the meeting, never mind to attend it. By curtailing any substantive debate, the government failed to fulfill its obligations to utilize European taxpayer money in the most responsible way (a translated letter from the groups to the Ministry of National Resources and the National Development Agency, which are responsible for managing the expenditure of EU Structural Funds, is available online). The fact that Hungarian law (Act CXXXI of 2010) requires social dialogue during the legislative process did not seem to matter.
The problem here is not only that that the Hungarian government still does not take consultation with civil society seriously—it is also that it intends to spend Structural Funds on the construction of new residential institutions for people with disabilities rather than invest that finding in the development of community-based services. We are talking about enormous amounts of money: Hungary is to spend 13 billion HUF (about 47 million Euros) for this purpose between 2011 and 2013. That kind of money could be used to develop the alternative infrastructure nationwide, finally ending the archaic practice of locking people with disabilities up in large, closed institutions and throwing away they keys.
Given that Hungary was among the first countries in the world to sign and ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) that clearly sets out the right to live in the community with appropriate support, the government’s plan to build new institutions is baffling at best. At worst, its insistence on maintaining the status quo by bypassing social debate on critical issues will lead to the wrong decisions, and will end in an enormous waste of resources.
We already know that the Hungarian government spent 1 million Euros on renovating large institutions between 2008 to 2010, and not a single penny on deinstitutionalization. Given that Hungary is in a leading position in the EU for the first half of this year, it should show real leadership. It could do that by elaborating regulations on the use of Structural Funds that respect the fundamental right of people with disabilities to live in the community by investing the resources in alternative services that respect their human rights. The Bulgarian government recently adopted an action plan for deinstitutionalization that uses Structural Funds to develop the alternative infrastructure, showing that the right thing can be done if there is political will.
The bright spot in this story is that civil society groups are standing together on this and will act as the conscience that the Hungarian government seems to lack.