Europe’s Romani minority: Underrepresentation and structural discrimination

Gwendolyn Albert from Romani news outlet ROMEA writes about the current climate for Romani people in Europe and the already difficult challenge of making member…

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Chapter : Europe’s Romani minority: Underrepresentation and structural discrimination

Gwendolyn Albert from Romani news outlet ROMEA writes about the current climate for Romani people in Europe and the already difficult challenge of making member states to make Romani inclusion a priority.

Following the increasing influence of far-right ideas and parties across the EU since the last European Parliament election, numerous changes in response to that pressure are being proposed across the political spectrum in the runup to next week’s elections. One such idea is that it is high time for candidates and other public figures of Romani origin to publicly embrace their ethnicity instead of choosing to not discuss it with their fellow European citizens.

Members of Europe’s Romani minority are not monolithic politically – and many unfortunately still live in conditions of statelessness that make it impossible for them to vote – but some of those able to cast their ballots have been increasingly focusing, in their activism and analysis, on the gap between the EU’s promise and the less than effective (and sometimes downright discriminatory) use that has been made of its social cohesion funds to date with respect to the continent’s Romani citizens. After decades of Romani civil society struggle, the European Commission seems to be shaping up to be a potential force for good as far as members of the Romani minority are concerned. The coming elections will determine whether that trend continues.

You can’t buy equality

According to the Roma Civil Monitor reports produced for the European Commission by the Center for Policy Studies at Central European University (which has recently been forced to leave Hungary by the Orbán Government), the Member State programmes deploying social cohesion funding for the integration of Romani communities can be classified along two different conceptual axes. The first axis involves whether a country approaches Romani citizens and residents through the lens of safeguarding their rights or whether it approaches them through the lens of their socioeconomic disadvantage – for some reason, both of these very important aims are conceptualized as in opposition to each other. The second axis has to do with whether Romani people should be specifically targeted by social cohesion programmes, or whether broader programmes of general social uplifting will reach them as well as others who are marginalized. 

While the EU’s Roma Framework has attempted to guide Member State policy, the implementation of the Member States’ integration strategies for Romani communities is unhelpfully politicized in most of them – in other words, where aid perceived as benefiting the Roma will cost votes, it tends to either never flow at all, or to flow but to be cynically abused. Those Member States that fail to integrate other EU citizens well, including Roma citizens, tend to exclude all such persons from the labour market, public services and social assistance. Moreover, countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece and Hungary almost exclusively use just EU funds to implement their Roma inclusion policies without adding national funds or making any long term efforts to change national policy.

Effectively sending bureaucrats and officials the not-so-subtle message that while Romani integration may be currently in EU fashion, “this too, shall pass”.

It is thus not surprising that the European Commission, despite the relatively large influence it has wielded through this funding, has noted significant problems with the continuity of national Romani inclusion policies. It has also launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia over their failure to uphold the EU Race Equality Directive with respect to the discrimination and segregation of Romani children in education from the beginning of their school careers in all those countries.

The fact that Roma have been formally recognized by some (but by no means all) EU Member States as national minorities has not meant that Romani representatives have also been elected to European, national, regional or local office in numbers anywhere near proportionate to the size of their communities. Moreover, even becoming a MEP in the early 2000s was not enough, for example, to keep Romani community member Viktoria Mohacsi safe from specifically antigypsyist death threats in Hungary. She was eventually granted political asylum by Canada last year. Indeed, mobilization of antigypsyist sentiments has been crucial to the recent democratic decline in that particular Member State.

Romani community member Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, recently issued a carefully reasoned appeal for Romani voters to make their influence felt in the European Parliament elections. “We know that EU funds have not drastically improved the lives of Roma,” he acknowledged in a recent opinion piece. “But they are still more than what governments have been willing to provide from national budgets. The European elections could bring to power more of those politicians who would simply cut off EU funds for Roma, which means we would have no public support at all for our communities – in other words, we would be back to the hardships of the 1990s.”

How do you translate “antigypsyism”?

Roma representation in the European Parliament so far has ranged across the political spectrum. On the left, Soraya Post of Sweden’s Feminist Party has used her time in office to press for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Europe’s history of antigypsyism. On the right, EP Vice-Chair Livia Jaroka of Hungary has tended to downplay complaints from grassroots Roma around Europe about the myriad ways local and national governments have targeted them for practices that violate their rights.

Meanwhile, Brussels-based NGOs such as the European Roma Information Office are launching English-language social media campaigns (#RomaPolitician, #RomaVoter and #RomaUseYourVote) to encourage Roma voter turnout. These messages may indeed further empower the educated Romani elite and their allies, but the degree to which such encouragement – or political education as such – filters through to the Romani citizens who are the worst off is debatable. Moreover, as the increasing Romani social media presence in Europe’s many languages demonstrates, there is no doubt that some Romani voters may also be tempted to cast their ballots for unsavory candidates whose platforms revolve around homophobic or other illiberal sentiments.

Finally, it has long been an axiom of those who follow Romani issues that there are probably far more Romani politicians already active at all levels of government throughout Europe than its citizens are aware of. The antigypsyist stigma associated with Romani identity makes it expedient for those whose skin color allows them to pass as non-Roma to do so.

The tide may be turning, however. There may be many more politicians in Europe than we realize who are like Carlos Miguel, Portugal’s Secretary of State for Local Authorities

who has a decades-long career in local government service to draw on, who does not hesitate to discuss his ethnicity openly, and who encourages other Romani candidates to do so. In this regard it will be interesting to see whether those politicians who have been brave enough to use #RomaPolitician in their social media feeds during the EP contest will be ultimately hampered or helped by identifying themselves as such.

Gwendolyn Albert is a human rights activist and ally of the Romani minority. She lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

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