Dear Mr Secretary of State, Honourable Members, Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me first of all thank MEP Marek Plura for his invitation to address you today – and indeed for his continued support and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities at the European level.
It is estimated that currently 80 million people in the European Union have to cope with a disability in their everyday lives. That is one in six people who are still facing far too many obstacles preventing them from fully exercising their rights; and far too many barriers to meaningful participation in society and economy. This is not acceptable.
The European Union has a shared responsibility to make sure that discrimination has no place in Europe. We must put in place the right conditions allowing all people to participate fully, and equally in society and the economy. And we need to ensure that every EU citizen can enjoy his or her full rights – including the right to free movement.
European Commission initiatives in relation to people with disabilities are guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As you know, the EU became a party to that Convention in 2011 – marking it the first time it ratified an international human rights treaty.
The UN Convention covers all aspects of people’s lives: from legal status to the right to work, from political participation to independent living. As such, it also sets in stone a shift in disability policy. It does away with the old fashioned protective and almost caritative approach.
A modern disability policy is one that focuses on enabling and empowering people. People who are capable of claiming their fundamental rights and of making decisions for their own lives as active members of our society and Social Market Economy. Indeed, what we’re interested in is how to give every single person the opportunity to make the most out of his or her Abilities.
The EU’s actions to implement the UN Convention are set out in the European Disability Strategy 2010 to 2020. They aim to complement the Member States’ efforts to build a barrier‑free Europe where people with disabilities can enjoy their fundamental rights.
These rights also include social and occupational integration. As you know, ‘Employment’ is a top priority for this Commission, but so too are ‘fairness’ and ‘inclusion’. We vow to create growth and jobs – but they must be jobs that are open to ALL citizens – including those with disabilities.
Clearly, more needs to be done to combat the low levels of people with disabilities in our workforce and to reduce the employment gap between people with and without a disability, which stands at 23.6 percentage points.
Across the European Union, the employment rate for people with a disability is currently around 48%, while only 27.8% of people with disabilities have completed third-level education. One‑third of people with a disability are currently at risk of poverty. If we want to meet our Europe 2020 targets in these domains, we need to step up our efforts.
We must make sure that the Employment Equality Directive that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability in employment and occupation is fully implemented. That includes its obligation for employers – public or private, to make the necessary adaptations for persons with disabilities: enabling ALL people to work on an equal basis. This is crucial to help people with disabilities to enter and stay in the labour market.
The European Commission is also continuously monitoring progress through the European Semester. In 2015, most country reports touched on issues concerning people with disabilities.
We can underpin this policy guidance to Member States via the European Social Fund. The European Social Fund invests in equality of opportunity in employment, in education and generally, social inclusion. Some €86 billion euro will be targeted at job creation and improving human capital. And at least 20% of this amount has to be allocated to social inclusion. Disadvantaged groups – such as people with a disability will receive specific support in finding work and exercising their rights.
In addition, a new pre-condition was added for Member States wishing to access the current round of European Structural and Investment Funds. This required them to demonstrate that they have administrative capacity to implement and apply the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Ladies and gentlemen, as well as creating work opportunities for all, this Commission is actively seeking to remove barriers to the free movement of people and workers who wish to take up these positions. Free movement is a basic right – and should not be reserved for a select few. All European citizens, with or without disabilities should be enabled to exercise this right to move and to work in another Member State.
The Commission will bring forward a Labour Mobility Package at the end of this year. A first task is to analyse and report objectively on mobility flows and their consequences on national labour markets and social security systems – both in sending and receiving countries. On that basis we will propose solutions which facilitate cross-border mobility and close loopholes to prevent errors, abuse or fraud.
I firmly believe that it is in our economic and social interests to remove barriers to the mobility of ALL people in the European Union. Mutual recognition of a person’s identity and status is an essential element of this right to free movement. This counts in particular for people with disabilities. It is clear that the recognition of disability status is decided exclusively at national level. But today, no system exists to allow for mutual recognition across borders.
This creates practical problems for people with a disability when travelling to another EU country. They are deprived of equal treatment because their disability cards or status are not always recognised – and their rights, therefore, are not always respected.
True, EU competence is quite limited in this area, but we are commited to do our most to facilitate the free movement of all EU citizens – including those with disabilities, and to their equal treatment.
This is why we are acting upon the call by the European Disability Forum and other campaigners. Today I am happy to announce that we will take forward the project of a European Disability Card for the mutual recognition of the disability status.
A dedicated study by the Academic Network of European Disability experts has shown the diversity of benefits provided in Member States, of the classification of disabilities, of additional eligibility criteria and so on. All these differences serve to highlight the magnitude of the challenge ahead.
But we believe that this challenge is worth tackling. We take inspiration from the European Parking Card for Disabled Persons. This is an important indication of what can be achieved when the political will is there.
The EU disability parking card was introduced by a Council Recommendation in 1998. It is based on the mutual recognition of national cards. People with disabilities can apply for a standardised parking card in their own Member State – which is recognised in all others for access to nationally-defined parking-related benefits. It is an example of ‘Europe working for citizens’.
In 2013, the Commission joined forces with the European Disability Forum and 15 participating Member States in a Project Working Group on the European Disability Card. The group met four times and exchanged information on benefits granted at national level, comparing the national systems in place: For example: the criteria to grant disability status; eligibility for different benefits. They also looked at benefits that might be extended to non-national cardholders.
What is important is the willingness to cooperate to bridge these differences and overcome barriers faced by persons with disabilities when travelling across the EU.
To capitalise on this, I have decided to make over €1.5 million available to support Member States in the establishment of the European Disability Card. We will launch a call for projects this summer and expect work to start early in 2016.
This means that Member States participating in the project working group can introduce the European Disability Card with financial backing from the Commission in the start-up phase. This is the fastest way to deliver results for persons with disabilities and will mark an important step in the direction of mutual recognition of disability status in all Member States.
Once established, the Card will not only grant people with disabilities recognition of status as they travel between participating countries, it will also allow access to certain benefits. Such access, on the same conditions as country nationals with disabilities, is an essential element of equal treatment.
The benefits concerned are in the areas of culture, leisure, transports and sport. The Card will not change national eligibility criteria or the nature of benefits offered at national level. It will be issued and managed by each Member State.
Of course the Card will have a common format – agreed at EU level, with simple, uniform features to allow its production with the minimum cost.
The European Commission will also assist with promotion and awareness-raising. A specifically targeted webpage will outline how the Card works, which countries are participating and who is responsible for the Card’s issue at Member State level.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am confident that once the Card is used in the first Member States – and once the full benefit of its ease and transparency are felt, other countries will come on board. I am convinced that it can even be an incentive for those Member States who currently do not have national disability cards to develop these.
I sincerely believe that the European Disability Card will be a real success: A milestone on the path to equality for ALL citizens. We cannot underestimate the social dimension of this initiative and its importance to the everyday life of a person with a disability. He or she will be afforded the opportunity to participate fully and equally in society – not just in their home country – but for the first time, in others too.
The roll-out of this Card will also give a boost to tourism – and give new impetus to accessible tourism providers. It will most likely lead to more travel and more people with a disability partaking in cultural, leisure and sport activities across borders.
Ladies and gentlemen, we should all play our part in creating a more inclusive society, where all people – with disability or without, are treated equally and have the same opportunities and rights.
Exclusion and poverty come with a long-term cost for the economy, for society and above all for people. Therefore, equal treatment for people with disabilities and disability policy in general will remain high on my agenda in the coming years. But I call on ALL Member States to join us on this path to a more equal and inclusive society: a society which first and foremost takes the abilities of each and every person as a starting point.
Thank you for your attention.