Finnish President Tarja Halonen’s initiative concerning the establishment of a European Forum for the Roma materialised in November 2004, when the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe decided to conclude a Partnership Agreement with the newly established European Roma and Travellers Forum.
The first Plenary Assembly of the Forum is foreseen to take place in Strasbourg in 2005. The selection of national representatives to the Forum is under way. All Council of Europe member countries with a Roma community will have representatives in the Forum.
The idea of the Forum is to give the Roma a common voice in European decision-making that concerns them. The approximately 10 million Roma constitute the largest minority group on the continent. They are discriminated and their social and economic position is poor everywhere.
The Forum is an autonomous international association, set up by the Roma. Its relations with the Council of Europe are governed by a partnership agreement, which specifies how the Forum is funded and deals with its representatives’ participation in the work of various bodies within the Council of Europe. The Forum can conclude agreements of cooperation with other actors, too, such as the EU and the OSCE. It can also advise governments and international organisations.
President Halonen put forward her proposal in her address to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in January 2001. The idea was to give the Roma an opportunity to take part in decision-making that affects them at the European level and to promote their human rights.
In cooperation with Roma organisations, Finland elaborated the initiative into a proposal that was subsequently discussed in a Committee of Ministers' Working Party, chaired by Ambassador Ann-Marie Nyroos. It decided to pursue a joint French-Finnish outline, according to which the Forum is an independent, consultative body operating in connection with the Council of Europe but not as part of it.
The Forum was developed in collaboration between the Working Party of the Committee of Ministers and Roma representatives. The Committee of Ministers worked out the guidelines that the Forum must meet as a precondition for the Partnership Agreement with the Council of Europe. The guidelines concern such aspects as balanced geographical representation, gender equality, and democratic ways of action and issues of which expert advice is expected. The Roma, for their part, prepared the Statute of the Forum and set up the Forum Association in July 2004.
The main task of the Forum is to support the participation of the Roma and Travellers people in decision-making that affects their position and their enhanced integration into society. The key areas of interest are combat against discrimination and racism and improvement of education, employment and health care.
The Forum gives opinions either on request or independently about issues concerning the Roma, launches initiatives and gives advice not only to the Council of Europe but also to other international organisations, governments and regional authorities. For these actors, the Forum can serve as an obvious provider of expert advice in issues related to the Roma.
The Plenary Assembly of the Forum will consist of 75 delegates at the most, the majority of them representing different nationalities. Others will represent the most influential international Roma organisations. The national delegates are being nominated at the moment and the first Plenary Assembly will convene in 2005 in Strasbourg.