In Brussels, 15 November 2019 – For the first time in history, three disability rights organisations have initiated Court proceedings against the European Commission for failing to halt EU infrastructure funding being used by Bulgaria to build institutions for persons with disabilities. Case T-613/19, pending before the EU General Court in Luxembourg, challenges the Decision of the European Commission not to suspend EU funding to Bulgaria.
Earlier this year, the European Network on Independent Living (“ENIL”), Validity Foundation (“Validity”) and the Center for Independent Living (“CIL”) called on the Bulgarian Government to immediately suspend a programme which will channel European Structural and Investment Funds (“ESI Funds”) into the building of a large number of institutions for people with disabilities and older people. Despite Bulgaria’s stated commitment to deinstitutionalisation, this investment will see large institutions replaced with smaller ones, without addressing the deeply ingrained discrimination, social exclusion and segregation of these groups. Having failed to get the suspension by the Managing Authorities, the applicants turned to the European Commission to suspend EU funding to Bulgaria, to ensure compliance with the EU and Bulgaria’s joint obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“UN CRPD”). The Commission decided not to do so, so that the organisations had no option left but to address the Court.
The case seeks annulment of the European Commission’s refusal to interrupt payment deadlines or suspend payments associated with the Call for Proposals BG16RFOP001-5.002 “Support for the deinstitutionalisation of services for elderly people and people with disabilities” under Priority Axis 5 “Regional social infrastructure” of Operational Programme “Regions in Growth”. The three organisations are supported by Covington & Burling LLP.
Ines Bulic Cojocariu, Deputy Director of ENIL, stated: “The regulations on the use ESI Funds, combined with the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the CRPD, provide the Commission with a strong legal basis to intervene when EU Funds are used to discriminate against disabled citizens. It is not acceptable for the Commission to allow Member States to use EU funds in ways contrary to the CRPD.”
Kapka Panayotova, the Director of CIL Sofia, highlighted why institutions funded by the EU in Bulgaria are not in line with the Convention: “Article 19 of the Convention sets out characteristics of institutional care settings, which include the loss personal choice and autonomy as a result of the imposition of certain life and living arrangements. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities warned Bulgaria in October 2018 that moving people from large institutions into smaller buildings is not in line with Article 19.”
Steven Allen, Co-Executive Director, Validity stated: “Segregating people with disabilities violates human rights and conflicts with the core values of the European Union, yet a number of EU countries are investing vast amounts of EU funding in precisely this way. The European Commission has a critical role to play in preventing segregation and providing redress to people who have already been affected.”
Photo: ENIL Co-chair Jamie Bolling sitting in a cage in front of the European Commission during the Freedom Drive protest on 2 October. Taken by Andre Felix.