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The EU's Roma role

Roma communities are facing a hostile environment in numerous European states. The European Commission needs to strike a fine balance between promoting change and allowing states to tackle this situation themselves.

Martin Kovats
11 May 2012

Valeriu Nicolae argues in his recent piece for openDemocracy that the European Commission (EC) is not serious about the ‘gathering crisis’ affecting Roma. He points to the lack of Roma expertise (or even experience) among senior officials and a preference for ‘positive’ reports and ‘watered down recommendations’. He argues that the EC’s approach to Roma can be classified as ‘structural racism’ as it excludes Roma participation at a senior level, and implies that this is a significant factor in the wider failure of Roma policy initiatives. He calls for an investigation into the Commission’s Roma work, which could be carried out by the European Parliament.

Valeriu Nicolae is right to express the urgency of the need to effectively address the deteriorating political situation of Roma in Europe. It is also unarguable that people who make important decisions should understand what they are doing. However, judging the knowledge needs of the Commission begs the questions: what is the Commission doing in respect of Roma issues and what should it do? If we look at how Roma has become an EU issue, we can see that the EU in general and the EC in particular are still working on the answer. Furthermore, focusing on the shortcomings of the Commission distracts attention away from where primary political responsibility to bring about change lies, at the national level.

About the author

In 2009 Valeriu Nicolae and I helped the Commission produce the 10 Common Basic Principles for Roma Inclusion, which are still the cornerstone of European initiatives on the subject. Since 2010, I have been the Special Adviser on Roma issues to the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, László Andor, and have been involved in developing the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020. Nevertheless, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own, based on twenty years of studying the Roma political phenomenon. They do not reflect the views of the Commission or any member of the Commission.

Roma on the EU’s agenda

Roma is used by the EU and in wider discourse as an ‘umbrella’ identity replacing the (English) generic term ‘gypsy’. But Roma is more than a re-branding of gypsy, it also represents a fundamental change in the centuries-old relationship between traditionally marginalised communities, the state and mainstream society. This change is nothing less than the emergence of Roma people as active participants in public life (see The politics of Roma identity: between nationalism and destitution, Martin Kovats, OpenDemocracy 29 July 2003). Of course, there have been Roma people operating at the interface between officials and society since there have been such communities. What is different now is people using Roma identity in increasing numbers to act in organised ways to represent interests on the public stage. The EU’s adoption of Roma as the umbrella term puts into practice the call of the first World Romany Congress in 1971 to have Roma adopted as the primary identity, at least in public life.

Despite some small scale initiatives going back to the 1970s, the importance of Roma for the EU is fundamentally driven by conditions in Central and South East Europe. From the mid 1990s, increasing amounts of EU funds have been spent on programmes aimed at Roma people. Analysis of the situation of Roma minorities became a regular feature in the annual pre-accession reports of several candidate countries. The enlargements eastwards of 2004 and 2007 turned the majority of Europe’s Roma into EU citizens.

Migration tensions

Within weeks of Romania’s entry into the EU, authorities in Italy began complaining about the arrival of thousands of impoverished Roma migrants. Rising tensions led to the declaration of a ‘Nomads Emergency’, which was only lifted in late 2011. A public row broke out between EU members and even torpedoed the establishment of a far right grouping in the European Parliament due to the conflicting patriotism of Italian and Romanian nationalists. In 2010 the French government responded to a clash between police and members of the country’s indigenous Gens de Voyage by announcing the closure of 300 ‘Roma camps’ and the expulsion of thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma migrants. Evidence of ethnic targeting prompted the EC’s Vice-President, the Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, to denounce the government’s behaviour as a ‘disgrace’ and analogous with the persecution of Roma during World War II. The robust response of the French government demonstrated the sensitivity of EU governments to Commission criticism of their treatment of Roma. The Commission subsequently accepted assurances that France would implement the Free Movement Directive appropriately.

Poverty, values and social cohesion

Inter-EU migration directly links Roma to one of the EU’s four freedoms and has shown how the difficulties many Roma people face in their home countries can spill over into other states. However, Roma is not solely a migration issue for the EU. The mass impoverishment of Roma people in the post-communist period has depressing implications for economic development, as well as wider EU values of equal opportunities and non-discrimination. It has also contributed to the rise of far right or nationalist movements which have begun playing the populist ‘Roma card’ as part of a wider rejection of rights based responses to social problems. This was first successfully deployed in 2005 by the Ataka movement in Bulgaria, but has proved particularly potent in Hungary, the European state that has done the most to promote Roma as a political identity (as part of a wider minority rights agenda seeking to protect the interests of Magyar minorities in neighbouring states.)

From 2008, the pseudo–paramilitary Magyar Garda began holding intimidating marches and demonstrations against ‘gypsy crime’ and in 2009 a series of racist murders spread terror among Roma communities throughout Hungary. The main beneficiaries of this aggression against Roma were the far right Jobbik party, who won 17% of the vote at the 2010 elections, entering Parliament for the first time as the third largest party (with only 12 fewer seats than the main opposition Hungarian Socialist Party).

Therefore, within a few short years of most Roma becoming EU citizens, the situation of Roma has created challenges for the EU in respect of its core values, its economic ‘model’ and relationships between member states. The whole EU project itself is under threat should politicised hostility towards Roma propel a far right party to power. As a result, following the public clash between the Commission and France in 2010, the Commission accepted that it needed to take the initiative, but how?

Not an EU Roma policy…

In fact, since 2005, the Commission had been under mounting pressure to act from a range of sources. The obviously unsatisfactory situation for Roma in a number of states means that there is an inevitable tendency to look for ‘solutions’ in terms of greater EU intervention. In recent years, the European Parliament has adopted a variety of reports and recommendations that the Commission come up with an EU Roma policy. This call was backed by a number of eastern EU states that have long argued that Roma is a ‘European issue’ and which participate in the World Bank/George Soros initiated Decade of Roma Inclusion. It was also advocated by a number of international NGOs, which formed the European Roma Policy Coalition.

However, the Commission was wary of ‘Europeanising’ Roma policy. In its Staff Working Paper of 2008, the Commission pointed out that EU treaties keep competency for social policy to member states. Without being granted additional legal powers, the Commission cannot compel governments to adopt a prescriptive action plan with targets for improving the social situation for Roma. Instead, in 2011, the Commission launched the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies.

… but a framework for national policies

The EU Roma Framework was endorsed by Council and requires all 27 EU states to produce either detailed national plans (running up to 2020) for reducing Roma inequality, or integrated policy measures for helping disadvantaged citizens, including Roma (the Commission is currently analysing these national strategies and will publish its assessment at the end of April). This approach solves the problem of competency by making states responsible for their commitments rather than these being imposed by the EU. It also defines the EU’s role as one of supporting national governments to deliver on their commitments, but without the EU itself being responsible for the activities of states themselves. The EU ‘added value’ lies in the public commitments of governments, EU funding for projects and programmes and linkage with EU policy process (notably the EU’s Europe 2020 growth strategy).

From its inception, the Framework has been criticised for being weak and unrealistic in requiring action from states, many of which have failed to address the needs of Roma people until now, which has led to the very problems to which the Framework is responding. However, the Framework’s emphasis on the responsibility of member states is more than a bureaucratic reflection of a legal division of labour, but seeks to address challenges at the heart of the Roma policy paradigm.

National context and consent

The superficial symbolism of Roma as a unique transnational people, the EU’s ‘largest ethnic minority’ with no ‘mother country’, promotes the (nationalist) aspiration that there should be some form of special European governance for Roma. Yet, regardless of what distinct cultural characteristics Roma people may share to a greater or lesser extent (or not at all), Roma are also citizens with the same rights and subject to the same economic, legal and political systems, part of the same national societies and cultures as their non-Roma compatriots. Integration, inclusion, equality of opportunity are concepts that must be meaningfully applied to real people in accordance with their actual circumstances. So for example, the equality of Roma in Romania is relative to that of other Romanians, not to the situation of Roma in Spain, Ireland or wherever.

Improving the situation of Roma people can only be done through local and national systems and institutions in individual states. Critics argue that public prejudice against Roma is a major obstacle to politicians and authorities embracing effective policy initiatives. However, that just underlines the necessity of winning the argument, not avoiding it. The EU can support positive policies both discursively and through EU funds, but it lacks the moral, legal or political authority to compel a state and society that is not yet willing to take the necessary steps to ensure that their Roma citizens enjoy equality of opportunity in every respect. Indeed, the wrong kind of EU intervention would probably work to the advantage of the Eurosceptic, Roma baiting far right. Improving accountability Related to this acknowledgement that Roma equality can only be meaningful in local and national contexts is the crucial importance of accountability. Though the Romantic ethnic discourse tends towards a narrative that Roma have always been and always will be marginalised in European societies, poverty and exclusion are neither inevitable nor a ‘natural disaster’, but are the consequence of decisions that have directly or indirectly determined their circumstances and opportunities. Improving opportunities for Roma people can only come about by strengthening the accountability of those who make decisions that affect Roma people, from teachers to ministers.

The danger of prescriptive EU intervention is that it could actually undermine accountability. At present accountability is clear - it rests with national authorities who are responsible for applying the law and providing services to their citizens regardless of ethnicity. If the EU were to set detailed targets for Roma policy, it would become responsible for whether those targets were met, even though it would not have the tools to deliver on them. At best, this would create confusion and would allow national governments to deflect attention from their own shortcomings. It would also keep alive the idea that if some states continue to fail their Roma citizens, sooner or later the EU may be pushed to take away from states the responsibility for addressing the needs of Roma people by establishing some kind of special European governance mechanism.

The aims of the EU Roma Framework

The EU’s Roma Framework asserts the responsibility of member states for polices to promote integration and social inclusion. It requires governments to set down their commitments in respect of Roma or disadvantaged persons in general, and to monitor and report on their progress. It encourages the active participation of Roma people, NGOs and others to critically evaluate policy initiatives allowing for the greater accountability of decision-makers to develop alongside a better focused and informed public debate. The hope is that greater transparency and scrutiny of Roma integration policies will lead to activities that will be more effective than in the past and thus (in certain states) rebuild public confidence in inclusive political initiatives.

The Framework has to gain confidence in itself too. This will not be an easy task, not least as Vice-President Commissioner Reding commented on the national strategies that ‘there is still a lot of room for improvement’ in a speech to the extraordinary meeting of the Roma Platform in March of this year. However, the Framework should not be judged, first and foremost, by what policies member states have written themselves, but by how successful it is in improving the accountability of local and national authorities for how they treat their (Roma) citizens.

Learning to fulfil the EU’s role

To succeed, the Commission will have to have the judgement and capacity to play its part in achieving this strategic goal. It has to be able to support key member states to enable them to use EU funds more effectively. In monitoring the Framework, the Commission will not only need to capture the right information, but also use that information to contribute to national debates and enhance governmental accountability. The Commission will also need to become bolder and more sophisticated in how it deploys its legal powers with respect to anti-discrimination.

As social policy is still intergovernmental, the Framework allows for the sharing of good practice between EU states. There is a clear distinction expressed in the national Roma strategies between wealthy western states that insist they have functional, non-discriminating public services and administrative systems, while eastern states admit their social policy infrastructure is inadequate and anti-Roma prejudice endemic. The EU Roma Framework offers the opportunity for countries to be ‘good Europeans’ by transferring knowledge and expertise within the EU. Furthermore, political authority lies with the Council and not the Commission, meaning that any serious criticism of a government’s treatment of its Roma citizens must emanate from other member states. The European Parliament can also play an important role in promoting better national debates about Roma, explaining the EU’s role and holding both the Commission and Council to account for their Roma related activities.

The accountability of the Commission

Valeriu Nicolae is correct that the Commission needs to account for its recruitment policies and who it considers a stakeholder. However, labelling the Commission ‘structurally racist’ and calling for an investigation misreads the nature of the EC’s emerging role in the Roma policy debate. It is understandable that the deeply unsatisfactory and deteriorating situation for Roma in some states prompts people to look for quick solutions in terms of governance arrangements – if only the EU would sort things out. However, it should be understood that the EU’s role is primarily strategic, and its success or failure can only be judged in the medium and longer terms according to how much it contributes to improving the quality of debate and accountability of its member states.

The EU has a very important role to play in the Roma policy paradigm, but not a decisive one. The danger of focusing on the EU, and the Commission in particular, is that it distracts from where substantive change is required in respect of the development and implementation of policies and programmes to support Roma people - in member states. There is a very clear principle that all governments must ensure that all their citizens are treated fairly regardless of ethnicity. The EU’s Roma role is directed towards the realisation of that principle. The transnational Roma discourse and demands for European governance risk compromising this principle by implying that some states simply cannot be expected to treat their Roma citizens fairly, with potentially serious consequences for the viability of fundamental rights at a time of economic crisis, increasing social tensions and a resurgent far right.

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