Friday, September 24, 2010

Padraig Flynn delivers public lecture on EU disability policy development at NUIG

by Eilionoir Flynn

On Wednesday 22 September 2010, Padraig Flynn, former EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs delivered a public lecture hosted by the Lifecourse Alliance in NUIG on the subject of “EU Policy Entrepreneurship – How EU disability policy was made and the lessons for the Lifecourse.” He was joined on the panel by Terry Stewart (former Director in the European Commission) and Dr Arthur O’Reilly, (former CEO of the National Rehabilitation Board and the National Disability Authority), and the event was chaired by Professor Gerard Quinn. Mr Flynn discussed how one of his key aims as Commissioner was to ensure that the economic progress made by the expansion of the single market would be accompanied by the guarantee of social solidarity – with welfare protections at national level and a flow of funding from EU level. He credited a great deal of his success in achieving this to the visionary leadership of Jacques Delors, who was president of the European Commission from 1985-1994.

Flynn entered the Commission during a period of low economic growth, high unemployment, rising economic nationalism and a decline in popular legitimacy of EU. One of the major debates in the Commission at the time centred on the recognition of social cohesion as driver of market behaviour. Through the introduction of social policy into the competencies of the EC, Flynn talked about the need to create “a people’s Europe” – where high social standards and a successful social economy would share a symbiotic relationship.

Some of the major factors he cited as advancing the disability rights agenda at European level included the publication in 1993 of the Green Paper on “European Social Policy – Options for the Union.” This paper was produced was the first clear statement of the need to ensure integration of people with disabilities, the principle of equal opportunities and the idea of mainstreaming all policies to reflect the issues faced by people with disabilities as policies of social inclusion which were a necessary component of economic recovery. Dr O’Reilly, who was a member of the Rehabilitation International European Community Association at the time, recalled submissions that this organisation made in respect of the green paper, and expressed the view that the policy, while significant, did not go far enough to accomplish what had been hoped for by people with disabilities – especially in light of what had been achieved in the US around that time with the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990.

In any event, this green paper in turn led to the adoption of the HELIOS II Programme, which ran from 1993 to 1996. HELIOS II aimed to encourage independence for persons with disabilities through functional rehabilitation and economic and social integration, based on a policy of cooperation between the Member States and NGOs at European level. At the end of this programme, the Commission announced the launch of a European Disability Strategy and invited the European Council and the member states to adopt a resolution to apply the principles of equal opportunity and non-discrimination in domestic law and policy and to cooperate in sharing best practice. This move was also significant as it led to the establishment of the EU High Level Group on Disability – which is still in operation today, and focusing on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at EC level, as well as within the member states.

At this stage in the late 1990s, the EU treaties did not explicitly state that there was competency to deal with issues relating to disability discrimination (or indeed, discrimination on other grounds). Commissioner Flynn and the other speakers emphasised the difficulty of getting all the member states on board with the principle of equal opportunity and the idea of moving disability policy out of the realm of welfare and health interventions towards more general policies relating to accessibility in the areas of transport, education etc. There was a consensus that a change would have to be made to the EC treaties to provide the legal basis for this competency – and the change occurred in the Treaty of Amsterdam, which inserted Article 6a into the Treaty establishing the European Community. The new provision stated as follows:

Without prejudice to the other provisions of this Treaty and within the limits of the powers conferred by it upon the Community, the Council, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the European Parliament, may take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

That treaty change provided the legal basis for several subsequent reforms including the adoption of the Framework Directive in 2000, which outlawed direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of sex, disability, age or sexual orientation in the employment sphere – requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities unless to do so would constitute a disproportionate burden. Professor Quinn also noted that it was this change in the Amsterdam Treaty which gave the EU the legal standing to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and which will lead to its eventual ratification of the Convention. The significance of this step should not be underestimated, as the EU was the first organisation of its kind to be allowed to sign and ratify an international human rights convention.

All of the speakers on the panel gave personal reflections on discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities they encountered, not only among the representatives of the various member states but sometimes at the most senior levels in the bureaucracy of the EU. In acknowledging that significant progress has been made in this respect, by advancing the paradigm shift towards a rights-based approach to disability, Professor Quinn closed the proceedings by making the following statement:

“This has been an evening about history, which is so important, because unless we become conscious of this history, it will be made and expressed by others who don’t understand where the tensions are and who lack an honesty of approach in addressing them. It is important for us to learn the lessons from this experience in how we intend to address these issues in the future. The European social model envisaged in the 1990s as applied to people with disabilities is still in a phase of transition and flux. At European level our traditional social model is influenced by civil rights thinking. It will be a fascinating experiment to see how social model will look in 10 years time if it is re-engineered to open up choice for people.”

A video recording of this event will shortly be available on the website of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, NUI Galway.