Can Europe Make It?

The end of a decade: what happened to Roma inclusion?

Ten years ago the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 was launched. Now that the Decade has been formally closed, it is time to reflect on the results.

Bernard Rorke
29 September 2015
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Riot police expel 130 Roma asylum seekers from refugee camp in Bron, France. serge mouraret/Demotix. All rights reserved.Ten years ago at the launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, the heads of the World Bank and Open Society Foundations, James Wolfensohn and George Soros described the Decade as an opportunity “to turn the tide of history, signaling ‘a sea change’ ” in Roma policy. 

The launch of the Decade raised a lot of hope, promised much and, in time, disillusioned many. Recalling the sense of optimism at the time, one Roma activist I interviewed described his high hopes and ambitions for change: “We thought that we as Roma were beginning to matter to other people ... that we were part of something that would ensure our political participation...”.

Now that the Decade has been formally closed with a meeting in Sarajevo on September 11, 2015, it’s time to reflect on what happened to all the hopes and the hyperbole, and what came of the opportunity “to turn the tide of history”. 

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows when you’ve got Viktor Orbán. Recently, the Hungarian Prime Minister, in the middle of yet another shameful tirade against Syrian refugees, found a moment to take a racist swipe at Romani citizens:

“Hungary’s historical given is that we live together with a few hundred thousands of Roma. This was decided by someone, somewhere. This is what we inherited. This is our situation, this is our predetermined condition … We are the ones who have to live with this, but we don’t demand from anyone, especially not in the direction of the west, that they should live together with a large Roma minority”.

Ten years on from the launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, therefore, the current leader of one of the founding countries equates Hungary’s Romani population with the Syrian refugees; likens his fellow citizens to a historically inherited burden and speaks of a national ‘we’ who have to live with ‘them’. 

Former Hungarian Prime Minister Péter Boross went even further when he opined that “the masses of Muslims” crossing the border “don’t just come from different cultures but their psychic apparatus, their biological and genetic endowments are different”, and for this reason cultural integration just does not work: “It hasn’t worked with the Gypsies, although they have lived with us for hundreds of years”.

From such utterances, it might seem to many that we have regressed beyond repair and beyond belief when it comes to Roma inclusion in at least one of the Decade countries. But let’s not hang a verdict on the whole enterprise based on the garbled words of two men from a regime that plunges deeper every day into the murky depths of “illiberal democracy”.

Looking beyond Hungary and scanning Roma-related news in the participating countries over the final few months of the Decade provides a wider snapshot but offers little by way of succor. It yields a dispiriting catalogue; reports of far-right mob attacks, police violence and justice denied; accounts of forced evictions and the toll they take on young and old; still more evidence that racial segregation in EU member states is a habit that too many white people just can’t kick.

A lost decade?

If the Decade is to be judged on its own terms, i.e. its pledge “to close the gap” between Roma and non-Roma in health, housing, education and employment within ten years, then clearly it has not been a success. Only the most naïve, however, could have expected such a social transformation to be launched, packaged and completed within a decade. 

It was abundantly clear from the outset that undoing centuries of racism and exclusion would take far more than ten years. There were no illusions about the difficulty to sustain the political will to implement substantive social inclusion policies across such a motley crew of barely consolidated democracies.

It is hard to sustain any kind of international political momentum over a long period at the best of times, let alone such a loose, non-binding pledge. Especially one made by political leaders of parties whose track record and commitment to Roma inclusion was at best tepid, ambivalent and ambiguous, and at worst wholly insincere.

The disenchantment and disappointment factor was built in to the DNA of the Decade; intergovernmental and international processes are at the best of times cumbersome and unwieldy. As the number of meetings and conferences soared, activists working in situations of acute deprivation soon became vexed with the “blah blah” and balderdash they had to sit through. They became even more troubled by the lack of tangible outcomes or even coherent conclusions at the end of what many declaimed as yet “another talkfest”. 

The entirely reasonable activist mindset is that talking is fine as long as it is a prelude to action and not a cover for inaction. The problem is that these international processes seem to operate at a sluggish pace completely at odds with the urgency and gravity of the situation.

What unfolded over the 10 years, however, was worse than intergovernmental sluggishness and incompetence. Many critics suggest that things actually worsened for Roma, with the rise of far-right movements pushing explicit anti-Roma agendas, and the spread of deepening poverty. In many of the worse-off “multiply-disadvantaged” regions across ‘austerity Europe’, whole communities are barely subsisting, living from hand to mouth, and just as excluded now as they ever were.

So, was it a lost decade? It came in with something of a bang, and it went out with barely a whimper in 2015, leaving scarcely a ripple on the public consciousness. The vast bulk of Roma communities across the 12 participating countries were completely unaware that there ever was a Decade.

The “tide of history” didn’t turn; and Roma inclusion was not buoyed up by a ‘sea change’ in policymaking. There is, nonetheless, a case to be made that suggests it might be premature to dismiss the entire enterprise as a lost cause. However rhetorically gratifying it might be to write off the Decade and damn it as a failure, a more circumspect assessment would suggest that it is “too early to say”. 

Education and housing

Of the four priority areas, education and housing represent the best and worst of the Decade. It is clear from the evidence and data that most progress is visible in education after ten years. For instance, across many countries there is a clear positive general trend with regard to access to early childhood education and care.

Overall, as the Commission noted in its latest report, while there are some positive signs: “much more needs to be done to bring about change on a larger scale”.

While some governments deserve praise for their efforts, much of the progress on inclusive education is attributable to the work of the Roma Education Fund (REF), which was founded at the launch of the Decade in 2005. For ten years, REF has provided support to thousands of children and young people in education from pre-school to post-graduate studies.

In the course of the decade REF has shown that school desegregation is possible, feasible and better for all; that substantive Roma participation is crucial for success; and that effective cooperation on the ground delivers the kind of change that can transform the lives of tens of thousands of Roma pupils.

Yet despite all this, some Decade countries remain wedded to systems and habits that perpetuate inequality and segregation. That the European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic and Slovakia serves as a reminder that ten years after these countries signed up to the Decade, systemic segregation of Romani children in education remains stubbornly pervasive.

The difference at the end of the Decade is that the segregation of Roma pupils no longer goes unquestioned, unchallenged or accepted as routine. There is now a broad and basic understanding in wider society that the segregation of Roma pupils is a pernicious practice. At the end of the Decade, even the segregators know that what they do is fundamentally wrong and runs contrary to any shared notion of “European values”.

When it comes to housing, by contrast, there is no sign of progress and little cause for optimism. Any innovative approaches and patches of progress over the last ten years have been eclipsed by the actions of local authorities in most of the Decade countries. These local authorities are busily and shamelessly building up walls around settlements, or in other cases simply tearing them down and relocating those that have been forcibly evicted to unsuitable and sometimes toxic sites devoid of basic amenities.

Routine institutional discrimination by housing authorities goes largely unchallenged, segregation continues to grow and the gap between Roma and non-Roma in terms of housing and living conditions is actually widening.

One of the most worrying signs at the end of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is that forced evictions and relocation – effectively banishing Roma communities out of sight and beyond the city limits – has become an increasingly popular policy option and a sure way for populist mayors and politicians to strengthen their standing in their local constituencies.

The EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies

One durable legacy of the Decade is the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. George Soros describes the Framework as “a copy of the Decade and an expansion of it to all EU Member States.” The European Commission acknowledged the Decade as being “a strong inspiration” for the Framework.

Back in 2005, one ambition of the Decade was to invite more governments to join the original eight. It was beyond all expectations that by 2013, all 28 EU Member States would have submitted National Roma Integration Strategies under the remit of an EU Framework; that the Commission would link Roma integration to its wider Europe 2020 strategy for growth; that the European Council would issue country-specific recommendations on Roma integration to Member States; and that the first ever legal instrument on Roma, a Council Recommendation on effective Roma integration measures in the Member States, would be adopted.

Anti-racism for slow learners

One important Decade lesson for slow learners among governing elites was that an emphasis on development, partnerships, social inclusion and societal cohesion couldn’t paper over the cracks when it came to racism and discrimination.

At the beginning of the Decade combating discrimination was relegated to a cross-cutting theme. “New realists” argued that if you present politicians with evidence-based arguments extolling the economic benefits of inclusion for the entire society; if you provide the evidence that investment in Roma inclusion today will eventually bring financial benefits then those that hold power will accede to the incontrovertible logic of the economic case for Roma inclusion. They will then act on this to produce policies that are wise, judicious and will be implemented successfully and smoothly.

Well, some cautioned way back in 2005 that as far as this particular economistic fallacy is concerned “it ain’t necessarily so”; and that such thinking was rooted, and remains rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of any concept of the political.  

One lesson over the last decade has been that antagonisms cannot simply be wished away and prejudice does not evaporate in the face of compelling economic data. Politics unfortunately remains as stubbornly combative and conflictual as ever and will never be reduced to “the mere administration of things”.

The European Commission and the European Parliament have finally and fully absorbed this one key lesson from the Decade – that there can be no progress on Roma inclusion unless direct and indirect forms of discrimination are tackled head on.

The latest Commission Communication on the EU Roma Framework issued in June 2015 is very forthright in delineating the failures of Member States to confront anti-Gypsyism - one of Europe’s oldest hatreds; the failures to ensure equal access to quality education for Roma children and persistence of segregation in schooling and housing; and the failures to properly transpose and enforce EU anti-discrimination law at regional and local level to protect the rights and dignity of Roma all over Europe.

Beyond its commitment as Guardian of the Treaties to ensure that EU anti-discrimination legislation is properly transposed and enforced, as “the necessary starting point in the fight against discrimination”, the Commission declared that it intends to use all means within its competence to fight against anti-Roma discrimination, including infringement proceedings.

In addition to legal tools, the communication states that fighting prejudice, discrimination, hate speech and hate crime needs political will and determined targeted action; that funding must be ensured to fight discrimination and segregation; and that in order to combat structural discrimination, mainstream public policies in education, employment, healthcare and housing are in urgent need of thoroughgoing inclusive reform.

The European Commission, in this communication has taken on many of the demands, entreaties and recommendations of nearly ten years of civil society advocacy related to Roma inclusion. One could argue, therefore, that the Decade, and the multifarious activities directly related to it, opened up much space for civil society to make these demands; provided the impetus to produce the data, reports and recommendations; and provided participatory platforms to ensure an international audience was listening.

By way of a tentative conclusion

Clearly the Decade did not (indeed it could not) deliver the kind of social transformations required to lift millions out of poverty, undo centuries of exclusion, and eliminate popular prejudice and structural discrimination.

This actually existing and imperfect Decade did, however, provide a  template for social inclusion and marked a real departure in that it raised the stakes in advocacy terms and it shone a harsh light like never before on what had long been Europe’s hidden and neglectful shame. Hitherto, anti-Gypsyism had been routinely accepted as a banal fact of life, racial segregation deemed as natural as winter following autumn, and acute poverty understood as a “cultural predisposition”.

By the Decade end, there is at least wide recognition that Roma exclusion is one of Europe’s biggest democratic deficits; ethically repugnant and economically unsustainable. If the European Commission lives up to its declared intent to use all means necessary within its competence to fight discrimination, and to do so at a moment when racism and xenophobia have become so much more of a mainstream political disposition in many countries, we may look forward to actually moving forward in our search for justice and equality.

If the Framework starts to deliver something by way of tangible progress on the ground and begins to turn the tide on prejudice and discrimination, then perhaps in time critics may come to look back less disparagingly on the Decade. Perhaps.

* This text is adapted from A lost decade? Reflections on Roma inclusion 2005-2015 Written by Bernard Rorke, Margareta Matache and Eben Friedman. Edited by Bernard Rorke and Orhan Usein. Available here.

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