Can Europe Make It?

Roma integration and 'a normal way of living'

Roma integration in Europe has shifted to a right-wing definition of integration where the onus is being placed on the minorities to make the adjustments and accommodations deemed necessary for social cohesion.

Bernard Rorke
1 June 2014
Roma children. Flickr/Damon Lynch. Some rights reserved.

Roma children. Flickr/Damon Lynch. Some rights reserved.

Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights told Euronews last January that Roma communities need “to be willing to integrate and to be willing to have a normal way of living”. 

This reminded me of the assassination of Jeno Kóka, a normal guy, gunned down by neo-Nazis as he left home for his night-shift in a local factory in the Hungarian town of Tiszalok a few years ago. His god-daughter Ágnes Kóka, a university graduate, who had 'a normal way of living' and worked on inclusion issues for many years explained: 

"We feel like the real targets. The death of my god-father proves that whatever we do, how we try to prove ourselves to the majority population and ourselves as well - the only thing that matters is that we were born to be Roma."

While Ms Reding’s defenders may object that the quotation has been plucked out of its unimpeachably progressive context, it's perhaps timely, after the Third EU Roma Summit, and three years into the EU Framework for Roma integration to ask what exactly these people mean by integration. Especially when one of the keynote speakers invited to address the summit was the Romanian president Basescu, who famously referred to a journalist as a ‘stinking gypsy’, and was fined last February by Romania’s National Council for Combating Discrimination for saying that "very few of them [Roma] want to work” and “traditionally many of them live off stealing."

As the Framework stumbles on, with failure masquerading as progress in the making, there has been precious little discussion about what is meant by "integration." Everyone’s talking integration, but too often the model in mind differs not a whit from assimilation. Following the attacks on multiculturalism emanating from the mainstream right a couple of years ago, and the electoral successes of far-right populist parties across democracies old and new, perceptions of integration are increasingly being driven by an assimilationist rationale. And when it comes to Roma integration, there seems to be very little of substance to separate left from right.

The silence of the Left

Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, reminds us in his campaign literature for the EU elections that when times are hard, that "we need to defend the basic European values of tolerance, respect for human rights and minority rights, non-discrimination, justice, solidarity and equality more than ever." The S&D group wants to develop European identity and citizenship in the face of the "growing nationalism and xenophobia from the Right and address the underlying social problems which breed despair and radicalisation." They call for action on Roma inclusion, effective implementation of national strategies, Roma participation and empowerment. 

All good heart-warming stuff, but three recent public statements on Roma by prominent members of political parties that belong to the European family of Socialists and Democrats give pause for thought as to what some of the comrades might mean by integration.     

Against a backdrop of scaremongering around perfectly legal immigration, late last year the English Labour politician David Blunkett, in response to reported tensions in one part of his Sheffield constituency, warned that unless steps were taken to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming Roma community.

"There’s going to be an explosion… We’ve got to be tough and robust in saying to people you are not in a downtrodden village or woodland, because many of them don’t even live in areas where there are toilets or refuse collection facilities. You are not there any more, you are here – and you’ve got to adhere to our standards, and to our way of behaving …."

And from France, the fast rising star of its failing and flailing left, the former Interior, and now Prime Minister, Manuel Valls declared that few Roma could ever integrate into French society, that Roma lifestyles were "clearly in confrontation" with French ways of life, and the only solution is that the majority should be sent "back to the borders.” 

What is one to make of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s commitment to integration? Following last year's call for Romani children to be removed from their parents and placed in boarding schools, Fico indulged in a decidedly odd but very telling rant against what he termed “minority rights extortion” by holders of minority opinions, ethnic minorities, the Roma, and people of a different orientation: 

“We did not establish our independent state to give preferential treatment to minorities, however much we appreciate them, but to privilege the Slovak nation-state in particular. It holds here that the state is a national one and our society is a civic one. It is a curious situation when minority problems are being intentionally foregrounded everywhere to the detriment of the Slovak nation-state. It’s as if there are no Slovak men and women living in Slovakia.”

As for Italy, is there any hope now that the centre left is in power, that the government will dismantle its segregated camps; ensure that Roma communities are protected from mob violence; end forced evictions, and take robust action against anti-Roma discrimination, hate speech and hate crime? Don't hold your breath. As Italy prepares to take the EU presidency next July, the priority in their proposed agenda is to crack down on illegal immigration. There is nothing about bringing an end to the blatant, undeclared apartheid that prevails against Roma  in Italy and prevents any notion of integration taking root.

And will we hear a peep of protest from the family of the European left? It's as if there is no connect between the elevated aspirations of European S&Ds seated in Strasbourg and Brussels, and the more visceral posturing of actually existing socialists and democrats in government and opposition in the capitals of many of the Union's Member States. It's easy enough in campaign literature to take a pop at mainstream right-wing parties who have "tried to exploit these tendencies for political advantage, endangering democracy," to stand up in general, and in principle for "Europe's fundamental values of solidarity and human dignity", and even to pass a Strasbourg resolution or two in support of Europe's Roma. It is far more difficult to sort out your own house first, and to condemn racism forcefully, promptly and without equivocation when it comes from within your own ranks. To put it mildly, it's clear that for the future, left progressive Members of the European Parliament will need to work more assiduously with their political parties back in their home countries to fight prejudice, cultivate majority support for Roma inclusion policies, combat hate crime and provide effective redress against all forms of discrimination. 

Rethinking integration

Over 30 years ago Roy Jenkins defined integration “not as a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.” Still a good definition, but in practice it hasn't weathered too well, for in many nations the notion of integration has become far less hospitably pluralist than before. Less of a two-way process and more of a one-way street, with the onus being placed on the minorities to make the adjustments and accommodations deemed necessary for social cohesion. This rightward shift in the political mainstream has been accompanied by increasingly virulent and frequently violent attacks on marginalized minorities by extremist groupings. And across the European Union, Roma populations are bearing the brunt of populist hostility.

The Romani scholar Ian Hancock once remarked that when a community loses a sense of its own history, when you cannot tell people where you came from, it's open season for outsiders to construct your identity. They can fabricate your history, ascribe to you a varied and absurd cluster of essential characteristics, and basically disparage and denigrate you as the mood takes them. 

Over the centuries, Hancock recalls that many wild hypotheses surfaced: that Roma were moon people, came from inside the hollow earth, were actually Jews who fled medieval pogroms and hid deep underground for many years before resurfacing dark and dirty. That Roma were not a real people at all, but were made up of the criminal dregs of lots of different societies who deliberately darkened their skin with walnut juices, and made up a secret jargon so they could practice criminality.

Last year's scurrilous media coverage of the ‘blond angel’ discovered dwelling among the dark-skinned Greek Roma; swiftly followed by the abduction of two Roma children by Irish authorities, snatched from their parents on the grounds of ‘being blond’, served as a chilling reminder of the ease with which medieval prejudice can revive and gel with 21st-Century racism. 

It also served as a chilling reminder, if one was needed, of just how much remains to be done to challenge the deeply rooted popular prejudice and institutional racism endured by our Roma fellow citizens. A chilling reminder of the extent to which radical and extreme prejudice against Roma is a mainstream predisposition right across the European Union. 

Politically orchestrated prejudice distorts public perceptions of Roma. Every week seems to yield fresh examples of prejudice from high and low. Public perceptions of Roma, common-sense understandings of what it is to be a so-called 'Gypsy' are so distorted that it seems to escape the notice of many commentators that hundreds of thousands of Roma are in fact 'integrated', studying in schools and universities; working in various professions; running their own businesses; successful in the media, visual and performing arts; and actively employed across the service and manufacturing sectors. It seems to have gone unnoticed that many hundreds of thousands of Roma families are unobtrusively leading what Commissioner Reding calls "a normal way of living."

When it comes to "a normal way of living", the key question is not how minorities can be integrated. Rather, following Bhikhu Parekh, the question we should be asking is how members of minority communities can become equal citizens bound to the rest by the ties of common belonging. 

If we cannot simply jettison the term 'integration', then we need to give it a profound rethink: it needs to be understood as a two-way, open-ended sequence of negotiated adjustments between citizens. As Parekh suggested, integration is best viewed as the means and not the end. Forms of integration should be negotiated and decided by their ability to serve the overall objective of fostering common belonging and dignity for all in the relations between Roma and non-Roma citizens. This however does not imply any symmetry in the "negotiated adjustments" between Roma and non-Roma. There is no symmetry when it comes to confronting structured and embedded institutional racism. 

Choose normal? Whose normal?

Telling Roma to 'choose normal' is especially jarring in the wake of the latest report from Thorbjørn Jagland, Council of Europe Secretary General, on the 'new normal' in the state of democracy and human rights in Europe. 

The Roma chapter lists the main issues addressed by monitoring bodies: racial violence; police brutality and ethnic profiling; hate speech; inadequate and segregated housing; lack of health care; segregated schooling; vulnerability to trafficking; forced evictions without prior consultation or alternative accommodation; and restrictions on freedom of movement and the right to leave one’s own country. The failure to implement existing standards and national action plans is attributed to governments lacking the nerve and political will to confront hostile public prejudice, and to marshall the necessary resources to combat anti-Gypsyism. This is part of a wider picture which prompted Jagland to declare that "Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe now face a crisis unprecedented since the end of the Cold War." 

If such a crisis is upon us, then S&D progressives need to get emphatically behind Hannes Swoboda's pledge to "stand for a citizens’ Europe where all of us can feel at home and where discrimination of any kind is rejected." Progressive and democratic politicians need to get to know, and get to know more about their fellow citizens of Romani origin, so that there might be less by way of crass generalizations, and more by way of prompt and informed rebuttals to hate speech in the public sphere. 

In addition to taking an unambiguous and unequivocal zero-tolerance approach to the crude manifestations of anti-Gypsyism, there is a need for some 'fast-forward' soul searching across Europe to confront institutional racism, which can be detected in "processes, attitudes and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people." Long ago, MacPherson warned that without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as a "corrosive disease", as part of the ethos or culture of organizations. When it comes to Roma across the European Union, it does prevail and it is corrosive.

In order to uproot anti-Roma racism, so that Roma integration might actually mean something, one starting point is to accept the existence and the ubiquity of institutional racism; understand its contours and consequences; and then provide effective remedy to halt the egregious insults and indignities long endured by our fellow citizens.

Another starting point is that there is no excuse for viewing Roma as an undifferentiated, passive, and dependent population. The hundreds of thousands of Roma who 'choose normal' every day of their lives belie the arrant nonsense that somehow it's a matter of 'cultural difference.' European institutions, national and local governments need to promote substantive Roma participation and embrace the idea that active citizenship is fundamental to social inclusion, and includes all of the citizenry regardless of their ethnicity. Roma communities and representatives must be accorded real opportunities to participate in shaping the policies and initiatives that directly impact their lives.

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