Systemic reform is urgently needed for Roma

Small steps forward are not sufficient to stop the overall negative current when it comes to the social exclusion of Roma. Those small steps forward will soon become irrelevant if serious reform is not put in place

Valeriu Nicolae
14 March 2012

The European Union displays all the signs of structural racism when it comes to Roma. European and national policies designed to lead to social inclusion are incoherent and result in an acceleration of social exclusion and a dangerous polarization of majority and Roma communities.

I have written before about this gathering crisis but now I want to develop a solution that could repair the irresponsibility of bureaucrats in charge of decisions regarding both Roma and non-Roma. A call for an independent, critical evaluation of European Commission action on Roma over the last 20 years might be that solution. Such an evaluation could lead to serious and much needed reform, including institutional and policy improvement, both at the EU level and within national governments. Such an evaluation should be called for by the European Parliament.


The European Commission provides by far the largest amount of money targeting the social inclusion of Roma. Money is distributed directly via the EC (a small percentage), and by member states (a much larger amount) after consultation with the EC.

Decisions about funding lines and amounts are made in Brussels, following largely flawed consultation processes at the national level. Governments prefer to involve non-critical stakeholders in such consultations and push their own agenda that rarely if ever is anything other than a diplomatic exercise of saving face. It never manages to attain being serious about Roma inclusion. As there is no expertise on Roma issues within the EC, and very limited expertise, if any, within national governments, most often the results are funding lines that make no sense, and achieve little.

NGOs with no proven expertise in the issues targeted by the EU funds write, and win, projects they cannot implement effectively. This results in a serious breakdown in trust within Roma civil society and among both Roma communities and the majorities. Unfortunately, it is rather rare that Roma NGOs have the needed financial and technical expertise to be able to implement Structural Funds.

In a number of cases, EU funds have supported contradictory policies. For example, funds have supported both segregation and desegregation projects. They have increased the stigmatization of Roma (e.g. by providing jobs as street cleaners) and fought anti-Gypsyism with awareness campaigns that, according to some critics, have only served to strengthen negative stereotypes about Roma.

Currently, the EC acknowledges that Roma continue to be the ethnic group in Europe most discriminated against, and that the level of anti-Gypsyism remains dangerous. EC statements can be found from 20 years ago, along the same lines. Paradoxically, however, not one EC case study mentions any failures in the many Roma projects financed by European money. After so many apparently successful projects, where are the significant improvements we might expect to see? It may be relevant that the actual amounts of money spent by the Commission to address anti-Gypsyism remain a fraction compared to what is spent on discrimination against other vulnerable groups.

According to available documents, the EC has done some great things, and nothing wrong. The same situation can be found when researching official documents of member states. No failures – just positive examples. The reality on the ground is in stark contrast to this.

Reports commissioned by the EC are “purged “ before publication to eliminate any harsh criticism that might upset the future careers of bureaucrats in charge. Some of those reports in the past have proven to be little more than compilations of older texts. And the watered-down recommendations from all these expensive reports have been largely ignored.

The way the Structural Funds are designed at the moment(focused on the delivery of social services) lead to the disappearance of many NGOs focused on anti-discrimination and social inclusion. Some have adapted and become social services providers. The main problem with this approach is that in the case of Roma the NGOs replace the role of local administrations and public services for Roma communities. This leads to a “ghettoization” of the Roma issue and a transfer of responsibility to Roma NGOs and bodies that lack the decision-making and administrative power to properly address such complex issues. The result is further, and increasingly dangerous, polarization of the Roma and the social majorities.

Structural racism

In 1974 David Hughes and Evelyn Kallen defined structural racism as inequalities rooted in the way society operates, that exclude substantial numbers of people from particular racial groups from significantly accessing and participating in major social institutions.

Now let’s look at the European Commission. A simple survey of Roma-related conferences organized by the European Commission in Brussels in the last two years shows that fewer than 1 in 5 speakers are experts with hands-on experience of Roma issues. In this general environment meaningful debate during these meetings is impossible. Recommendations made by experts were and continue to be largely ignored. Furthermore, none of the people in senior or mid-level management positions working on Roma issues have any proven academic or hands-on expertise in these issues; the same is true for the cabinets of Commissioners. Even worse, the people attending these meetings come from societies where polls show that over 70% of the population think Roma are inferior to the majority populations. Can we count on them being free of these prejudices?

Ironically, the current Roma Commissioner comes from Luxembourg - the only EU country which claims to have no Roma, and which has a policy to keep Roma out. She has no experience whatsoever in issues linked to Roma, nor does anyone in her cabinet. The other most relevant person in charge of Roma issues is a bureaucrat from Cyprus, a country with very few Roma. She also has no proven experience in these issues. While these people, and others working on the issue, may have the best of intentions, this simply is not adequate. We cannot expect useful and relevant recommendations or policies from people without knowledge or experience.

Despite their numbers (an estimated population of 10 – 12 million in the EU, which is larger that some EU member states), Roma are hugely underrepresented - when represented at all - in all EU structures .

So is it structural racism? It fits the definition: the way the Commission operates appears to exclude the access and participation of Roma.

A critical, independent evaluation of the European Commission

The European bureaucracy in senior and middle management positions has no proven experience but also no responsibility or incentive to push towards serious policies targeting Roma inclusion. Such policies would require significant financial commitments and a serious reform at the EC and national levels. Criticism, reform and strong monitoring would be a must and those do not make friends. Careers in Brussels are built on strong political support, diplomatic niceties and pragmatism. Good speeches, window dressing measures and postponing any serious financial investments during the time an EC senior and medium manager is in charge of Roma issues would seem the best way to preserve intact the chances of a successful career in the EC.

I propose a critical, independent evaluation of Commission action on Roma. This would be a good first step. The European Parliament could initiate this, as a way to ensure that the next financial cycle of the EU will lead to progress, when it comes to Roma. The evaluation should look at the efficiency of both the institutional and financial mechanisms and should present uncensored recommendations for improvements. Similar research is needed in the case of member states.

The purpose of this exercise would not be to embarrass or blame anybody. Many well intentioned, and some truly exceptional people both in the EU and national structures, genuinely are trying their best to help. Unfortunately, they work within an institutional and policy framework that dilutes their efforts, and sometimes renders those efforts completely useless.

The main problem at this moment is not that there is no progress. In fact, there is some progress. But the small steps forward are not sufficient to stop the overall negative current when it comes to the social exclusion of Roma. Those small steps forward will soon become irrelevant if serious reform is not put in place.

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