28 years after… while Roma wait

Twenty eight years exactly since the first resolution on Roma was passed by the European Parliament, the EU is finally publishing its Framework Strategy on Roma. But is there any progress to report?

Valeriu Nicolae
23 May 2012

On 24 May 1984 the European Parliament passed resolution C172/153, which acknowledged that “gypsies still suffer discrimination in law and practice,” and called on the governments of European member states to eliminate discrimination against Roma. Twenty-eight years, and countless resolutions, later, according to the Director of the Fundamental Rights Agency, in February 2012 Roma/Gypsies are the most discriminated against ethnic minority in Europe.

European Union institutions show all the signs of structural racism when it comes to Roma. There are few incentives for managers in charge of Roma issues to come up with functional policies: such policies would likely be expensive (as shown by US policies targeting the social inclusion of Afro-Americans) and deeply unpopular. The bureaucrats feel no responsibility whatsoever towards Roma, moreover their careers depend on political connections. As I will show later in this article, the European political class is not very fond of Roma.

The situation on the ground is even more worrying. The overwhelming majority of Roma live in deep poverty and lack sufficient education to acquire decent jobs. For example, half of Roma children drop out of school, according to a 2010 UN report. Europeans have strongly negative prejudices against Roma: the Eurobarometer shows that Roma are disliked six times more than the average of ethnic minorities in Europe.[1]

In March 2012, the European Union held the latest Extraordinary Meeting on Roma, which focused on National Strategies for Roma inclusion. Of the twenty-nine speakers on the agenda, only two were Roma. Furthermore, one represents the most right-wing ruling party in Europe at the moment – the Hungarian Fidesz party.

The discrepancy between official speeches at the European Union level, reporting significant progress each year, and the reality at the ground level is stark. Ethnically targeted killings of Roma in Hungary, a policy to fingerprint Roma in Italy, and illegal criminal profiling of Roma in France are just some of the most visible signs of lack of progress. Increased migration of Roma towards western Europe and proliferation of Roma ghettoes around the European capitals are results of failed policies.

Vladimir Meciar, when he was Prime Minister of Slovakia, said that “[Roma] are antisocial, mentally backward, inassimilable and socially unacceptable.”[2] Views such as that of Mr Meciar are widespread in Europe. Many Europeans directly associate Roma with criminality. The focus on empowering traditional Roma is widespread, but wrong. It has not led to progress within traditional communities, as bureaucrats and politicians hoped, but rather to an involution. Huge numbers of successful professionals of Roma origin prefer to assimilate within the majorities in order to avoid being perceived as criminals.

Affirmative measures targeting Roma have not worked, overall. Often, they have provided easy access to employment for people who do not need an advantage in the marketplace. Roma from the middle- or upper-class, with better access to information, or the right connections, have made the most of such opportunities. Only exceptionally can one see Roma from the poorest communities benefiting from affirmative action. Roma activism is too often a family business focused on rapid or easy access to power and financial resources.

Unfortunately, European human rights watchdog organisations show the same signs of structural racism as do all other EU institutions. Neither the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, nor the Council of Europe European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) employ any Roma, according to their human resources departments[3], despite the fact that they spend a significant, sometimes a majority, of their yearly research budgets on Roma-related issues. The same watchdogs have argued numerous times in the past for affirmative action to bring Roma within institutions relevant for their social inclusion.

Failure is a bitter pill to swallow. But we all need to recognize failure in order to improve. Otherwise, the situation on the ground will only get worse, while the rhetoric becomes more and more empty.

The hardest thing to accept may be that most of the money spent in Europe on Roma issues is spent on bureaucratic administration (mostly for non-Roma human resources) and expensive meetings held in four or five-stars hotels in capitals all around Europe. None of the Roma suffering from social exclusion live there.


[1]European Commission (2008). Discrimination in the European Union: Perceptions, experiences and attitudes, p. 8. Retrieved April 15, 2012 from: <http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_296_sum_en.pdf>.

[2] As reported by the Slovak Spectator.

[3] According to the Roma contact point within the Council of Europe, and the director of the Fundamental Rights Agency.

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