Twenty Years of the European Disability Forum

European Disability Forum – EDF. An interview with President Yannis Vardakastanis.
Rodolfo Cattani

Twenty years have passed since the foundation of the EDF European Disability Forum, and it is time to stop and look at the situation of people with disabilities in the European Union (EU). What have these twenty years brought?

Only forty years after the foundation of the European Union (1957) were we able to include a reference to disability in European legislation. In 1997, article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam created the legal basis of European legislation that protects the rights of persons with disabilities from discrimination. This was the result of our very young organization's first protests, and since then, there have been twenty years of positive results, but also backward steps and the deterioration of the EU's economic and social framework. We now find ourselves in a difficult and turbulent situation; the European project which has benefited greatly people with disabilities is under attack. However, we are sending a strong message to the European Institutions to say that the disability movement wants with determination that European policies be maintained, renewed and strengthened to ensure citizens justice and well-being for all.

Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum

Mr. President, how do you feel today after these twenty challenging years?

I am reminded about how we started, about the people with whom we worked and who are no longer with us and where we are today. EDF was born during the most intensive development of the European unification, while the twentieth anniversary falls in a very turbulent period, with widespread European design controversy and strong centrifugal forces. It is a fact that persons with disabilities have obtained much from the EU institutions and Member States, especially in regards to the recognition of their fundamental rights. Ours was an interesting journey and I consider myself lucky to have been among the protagonists right from the beginning when in 1995 we began to draft the EDF statute, which became operational in 1997. Along the way, we have achieved significant successes. The first one was in June 1997 when we organized the first major demonstration in the Netherlands for the adoption of Art. 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam, officially recognizing the term "disability." The second extraordinary success is the adoption of the Employment Equality Framework Directive in 2000, the first anti-discrimination law in Europe, although still sectoral. Then came in 2003, the first European Year of People with Disabilities, followed in 2004 by the first European Disability Action Plan 2004-2010. Meanwhile, in New York, the draft of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was being outlined. EDF played a very active role in that context until 2006, when the Convention was adopted. Since then we have been working hard to achieve ratification of the Convention by the EU and Member States. In 2007, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary, EDF surprised everyone, including itself, with the idea of ​​collecting one million signatures to ban discrimination from the EU. We gathered nearly 1,300,000 signatures, which we delivered in October to the European Parliament. This was for me perhaps the utmost legitimacy of our organization by civil society as a whole. Finally, the decade of the Convention, when at the end of 2010 it was ratified by the European Union. In 2010, the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 was launched, and the mid-term report was recently published. I would say, however, that the most extraordinary result of these twenty years is that EDF has since been able to obtain the membership and consent of more than one hundred European organizations representing or supporting persons with disabilities in Europe. A full, enthusiastic consensus, a commitment, a sense of solidarity and deep sentiment of belonging that I will never forget.

However, the climate has now changed. There are new challenges.

To me, this change in the political and social climate in the EU is no surprise. If we analyze the relationship between the political forces in the European institutions, it is clear that we had to expect this. The legislative procedure of the European Commission was complicated but not troubled, while now, for example, the European Accessibility Act is meeting strong resistance. It is under consideration by the European Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection which has never been involved with disability in the past. In that committee, many parliamentarians have no knowledge of disability, which is not the case for other commissions with which we have worked very well. There is, however, a wave of extreme liberalism that even questions fundamental rights. It was inevitable that sooner or later we too would be victims of this culture and it is necessary that EDF fight this openly and transparently, not in secret rooms, but out there in civil society.

We have been used to moving from challenges to successes: how will it go moving forward?

I believe we should turn today's challenges into tomorrow's opportunities. Success will certainly be more difficult. The year 2017 is crucial for developing our strategy. There may be changes in the political balance, but it is important for policy makers to understand the interests of European citizens to prevent populists, eurosceptics and extremists from prevailing, and to strike a balance between market interests and the necessities of life for our citizens.

There will then be changes in Parliament and in the European Commission?

Of course, if in 2017 there is an imbalance of power among Member States - and we should remember that we have important elections in 2017 in Germany, France, the Netherlands and perhaps in Italy - this will change the political environment in Europe in the coming years and influence, to some extent, the composition of the new European Parliament in 2019 and probably also the Commission. So I think EDF can be optimistic. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities offers us a formidable tool to face European institutions and national governments. There are UN recommendations, both for the European Union and for Member States, which cannot be avoided and that is why we must now lay the foundations for a robust inter-institutional strategy on disability for the decade 2020-2030. We have proposed that the year 2021 be declared the European Year of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, also to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the UN Convention by the EU.

Members and staff of the Executive Committee, European Disability Forum

It is important that a focal point coordination mechanism is established in the European Institutions to strengthen the monitoring of the implementation of the Convention and to develop a structured dialogue with the representative organizations of persons with disabilities, as enshrined in Articles 4.3 and 33.2 of the Convention. That is why our slogan for the 20th anniversary of the Forum is "Nothing about us without us, visibility of disability rights everywhere."

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