The second annual meeting of the Disability High Level Group took place in Brussels on the 25th October 2018. Organised by the Disability Unit at DG Employment, the meeting was attended by representatives of the Member States (from the Ministries or permanent representations in Brussels) and EU level NGOs involved in promoting the rights of disabled people. This article highlights some of the key messages from the meeting of relevance to disability activists.

The meeting started with interventions from Poland and Malta – the two Member States most recently reviewedby the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD Committee), whose Concluding Observations were published in September. Disappointingly, the Polish Government representative used his presentation to note where the Government disagrees with the recommendations of the Committee. He stated that some of the recommendations were based on the General Comments, rather than the CRPD, adding that State Parties to the CRPD are not bound by the General Comments. He noted that Poland interprets the CRPD differently from the Committee and that the Government is planning to submit amendments to the Concluding Observations (despite the fact that they have already been published).

The Maltese representative continued in the same tone, noting that the Committee focused too much on the problems and did not take into account the positive things. He described the Committee as being ‘too set in its ways’ and too close to the NGOs.

As a result of these two interventions, the Chair and Head of the Disability Unit, Emmanuelle Grange, suggested a ‘closed door’ meeting with the Member States during the next High Level Group meeting, in order to discuss the work of the CRPD Committee. Spain, which is having its second review by the Committee in March 2019, also agreed to present their experience. The Chair added that the Commission and the Member States should start planning already if they want to nominate a candidate for the CRPD Committee during the next elections.

Following the discussion about reporting to the CRPD Committee, the current and the upcoming Council Presidencies presented their disability-related work. A representative of the Austrian Presidency spoke about Article 27 CRPD (the right to work) as being a key topic on the agenda, as well as about the European Accessibility Act, which he hoped would become law by the end of the Presidency in December 2018. A representative of the Romanian Presidency, from the National Authority for Persons with Disabilities, was not able to share many details, despite the Presidency beginning in January 2019. She did, however, mention several conferences that will take place – the EDF Board meeting in April, with a side event on youth and employment, and a capacity building event on deinstitutionalisation, organised by ICF and the European Commission.

A substantial part of the meeting was devoted to the Disability Unit sharing information about its work, in relation to the European Semester, funding for NGOs, the European Disability Strategy, a peer review in Croatia and the EU Disability Card. This is what we can expect in 2019, among other:

1. A European awareness raising campaign on non-discrimination at work will be launched, under the hashtag #EUTogetherWeProtect Targeted actions will be organised in Member States with the biggest employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people – Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Croatia. Some general activities will also be organised, such as video material and an online platform with contacts of equality bodies in the Member States.

2. Efforts will be made to ensure that the European Semester is used to reinforce the Social Rights Pillar, by making sure that some of the Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) are disability-related. It was noted that the next round of the Semester is particularly important, given that this is the last year of Juncker’s Commission and that the Semester reports will influence investment priorities in the post 2020 Multi-annual Financial Framework.

3. The evaluation of the European Disability Strategy 2010 – 2020 will be launched next year – a process that will be coordinated by an external contractor and finalised by June 2020. The open consultation will run from April to June 2019, while a targeted consultation will be carried out between April and October 2019. Deliverables will include a roadmap, a summary report, a final report and a Commission Staff Working document. It was said that the consultation will be accessible, though it is unclear if efforts will be made to receive input from people with intellectual disabilities (beyond publishing the questionnaire in easy read) and other marginalised groups.

4. A study will be done on the EU Disability Card, with the aim to consider whether more countries should receive financial support to roll out the card. Once again, there will be a public consultation and the final report will be available in December 2019. On 28 November 2018, a Disability Intergroup meeting will focus on the EU Disability Card.

After reports from the European Ombudsman and the European Economic and Social Committee on the work they are doing, the last part of the meeting was dedicated to EU Funds. Here, EDF and EASPD presented their assessment of the current Commission proposal for the post 2020 legislative package. At this point, ENIL intervened to say that it is key EU Funds are not used to build or renovate institutions for disabled people – including small group homes and other residential care facilities for disabled people. We also highlighted the importance of verifying the success of the Member States’ ‘deinstitutionalisation efforts’, i.e. whether disabled people are able to enjoy their right to independent living. A Finnish NGO representative added her concerns about the fact that public procurement is driving down the quality of support services in her country, with contracts for providing support to disabled people going to the lowest bidder.

In conclusion, other than the informative updates, it is unfortunate that there was little reflection at the High Level Group on the right to independent living. It would have been good to hear how Member States are addressing the barriers to independent living, what they have done to implement the recommendations of the CRPD Committee, where they see the role of the European Commission in this process. In fact, most interventions and initiatives focused on unemployment of disabled people, as if increasing employment will help overcome all the various barriers faced by disabled people in the EU, such as institutionalisation, lack of legal capacity, access to education, housing, health care and other.