A European Roma Strategy

The enlargements of 2004 and 2007 have brought between five and six million people of Roma origin into the European Union. Mainly living in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, Roma communities continue to face discrimination, adverse living conditions and social and economic exclusion. Sizeable Roma communities also live in the countries of the Western Balkans and in Turkey. Constituting a transnational minority, the promotion of Roma inclusion is not just a national responsibility, but also a European one.

When it comes to solidarity, social justice and equal treatment, the European Union has to live up to its reputation. The situation of Roma communities is a test case for the strength and effectiveness of the European Union's values and policies. For these reasons, Roma inclusion warrants a permanent place on the European political agenda. In the run up to accession, Roma inclusion was highlighted as an area candidate countries needed to improve their performance significantly. In the first years after the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, the issue more or less slipped off the agenda. But more recently, Roma exclusion has re-entered the centre of attention, not least progress has been more limited than we had hoped for. And although we often talk about the terrible situation of the Roma in the new Member States, this does not mean that all is well with the Roma and Sinti living in the old member states. Roma are still the single most discriminated against community in Europe, as was established by the European Fundamental Rights Agency.

This paper does not address directly the question of migration or the fear of mass migration. Nevertheless, it was a horrific event in Rome, Italy, in November 2007 that made clear that action was urgently needed at the European level. A woman was violently killed, apparently by a Roma, which led to a harsh and defensive reaction from the side of Italian authorities. They threatened to expel Roma from the country, and even, as then Commissioner Frattini scandalously added, all Romanians with them. If anything, it made clear we cannot treat the issue in isolation, within national borders. As European Roma Grassroots Organisation director Valeriu Nicolae remarked, "social exclusion travels". With the freedom of movement as one the most important achievements of European integration, it travels across the European Union. Therefore, we need to find solutions and formulate more effective policies at the European level as well. After all, the extent to which an enlarged Union succeeds in improving the plight of the Roma may be considered as a trial for Europe's social and democratic identity.

Roma in Europe, a historic background

After the Second World War, the majority of European Roma disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. There was some hope that their terrible situation would improve under the communist regimes, but this soon proved unfounded. Russia pursued a policy of denationalisation and there was, therefore, little room for expressions of cultural identity. Nomadic behaviour was not exactly welcome under Communism. No-one was allowed to escape the control of the party and the state. If there was any sense of the seriousness of the Roma's situation, the blame was put on the earlier capitalist regimes. Because of their 'commercial' past the Roma were seen as infected by a capitalist mentality and in need of help.

However, the communist governments in turn were unable to bring to the Roma communities the 'fruits of social transformation' and merely pursued a policy of enforced settlement. This was the origin of the Roma's sedentary existence in Central and Eastern Europe. In the 1960s, there were admittedly improvements in housing and education, but these did nothing to overcome the prejudices and resentment expressed by the rest of the population against the Roma. Nevertheless, there was work for the Roma and some of them used the educational opportunities on offer to gain advancement. As a result a small but important intellectual elite emerged.

The communists' plan for the Roma to disappear as an identifiable population group turned out to be counter-productive and even spawned practices of repression and segregation. The Roma were still outcasts and the rest of the population continued to react negatively towards them.

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and with the revival of democracy, the Roma were for the first time given the chance to organise themselves. This was reflected, notably, in the development of political and cultural organisations. However, social prejudice against them did not disappear: in fact quite the reverse took place. The number of racist incidents grew and the Roma also suffered economic decline. The introduction of the free market economy led to the disappearance of many 'superfluous' jobs, particularly in state enterprises where the predominantly poorly-skilled Roma tended to work. This led to a massive increase in unemployment and a further deterioration in their social circumstances. Consideration for the situation of the Roma did not fit in with the often market-orientated philosophies of the first democratic governments in Central and Eastern Europe. The prevailing view was that the Roma should solve their own problems.

A unique minority

It is not easy to characterise the Roma. The group encompasses a rich diversity of cultures, languages and lifestyles and as such is not homogeneous. In Western Europe there are still itinerant groups, but in Central and Eastern Europe the Roma usually tend to be permanently settled in one place. The majority lives in poverty, but there are also some who belong to the middle classes and enjoy a very reasonable standard of living. Although some Roma still live in fairly traditional, rural conditions, most live in towns, often in urban ghettos.

This diversity is more of a problem for the rest of the population, who often do not know how to deal with it, than it is for the Roma. Even though they tend to identify with different sub-groups rather than with the group as a whole (not all Roma call themselves 'Roma'), they nevertheless feel a common bond. The fact that they all face the same prejudices and negative attitudes strengthens that bond.

Their broad diversity and wide geographical distribution make the Roma a special sort of minority. They do not posses traditional characteristics that many minority groups have, such as their own territory. This contrasts with minority groups such as the Hungarian minority in Slovakia or Romania. For this reason, they depend on the common attributes of ethnic origin, historical background and certain cultural characteristics.

The term Roma is developing a new meaning. Emphasising their own ethnic identity has become a way of giving a collective response to the widespread discrimination that they suffer. An attempt is also being made to make the new consciousness of the Roma an organisational framework for this extremely diverse group. Most Roma leaders do not want their own state, but they want to put a stop to the social inequality that they suffer, as well as recognition of their group's specific rights.

There is disagreement within the Roma elite about the status Roma should give themselves. There are two distinct trains of thought. The first is that the Roma should be seen as a national minority. Supporters of this approach feel they should be given an according formal status. This would involve protection by the state and make them benefit similar rights and protection as other national minorities, also under European law. However, the result would very much vary from country to country, since the protection awarded depends on the modalities of the national legal systems of each country. The main argument for this approach is that it would be discriminatory to have a special status for the Roma. They must be given exactly the same rights as other minorities, because otherwise they run the risk of being seen as second-class citizens.

The second approach involves giving the Roma a separate, transnational minority status. Representatives of this group put greater faith in Europe than in their national governments. The Council of Europe regards the Roma as a traditional, non-territorial minority who need special European-level protection because they are the victims of discrimination and human rights violations all over Europe. For this reason, the Council of Europe is trying to protect the Roma, who are first and foremost European citizens, against discrimination and racism.

The view that the Roma constitute a transnational minority has a certain logic. The Hungarian minority in Slovakia can rely on Hungary's support. In contrast, the Roma can only depend on Europe for this kind of support. Many Roma therefore see a cross-border approach as a guarantee that they will be able to exercise their rights. To be successful, this approach has to be combined with improvements in national policies given that the Roma are still citizens of a particular country.

Modern Roma life

Let us examine the current position of the Roma in more detail, beginning with the phenomenon of discrimination. This is nothing new and is not confined to the new member states. Nevertheless, it might be said that the treatment of the Roma, whose history is one of continual discrimination up to the present day, is unusual. In the difficult socio-economic circumstances after 1989, they have at times played the age-old role of the black sheep. Minorities are sometimes treated in the same negative way as the political opposition, facing resentment. Even though economic growth has been relatively strong in all new member states, little has structurally changed when it comes to their economic participation.

This is reinforced by the fact that the Roma often isolate themselves from the predominant culture. Even though, this isolation is often a reaction by the Roma to centuries of exclusion, it is a challenge that has to be taken up by Roma themselves. Some politicians continue to contribute to the perpetuation of negative feelings towards Roma in order to win votes. This mainly applies at a local level, but even national politicians sometimes play this card to their advantage.

Complaints about violence and unfairness against the Roma even concern the police and the judiciary. Many Roma consider the lack of personal safety as their greatest cause for concern. In some cases, the police act as their enemy and thus they feel completely unprotected. Although some of the worst abuses appear to be a thing of the past, the mentality of authorities continues to be a problem.

Discrimination against the Roma is directly linked to their marginal social position and exclusion. This is a phenomenon that no-one can fail to notice. It is prevalent in the particularly important area of education. There is nothing more damaging to the Roma's situation than lagging behind in this field. Some Roma see the education system as hostile to their culture and are therefore suspicious of it. This is also due to the fact that education practices often give little consideration to the special situation of their children.

Poverty is also a major factor. Many parents cannot afford to send their children to school. Girls often marry young and are consequently unable to finish their education. All of these factors help to keep the numbers attending school very low. The obstacles are considerable, the results discouraging. And for the Roma, a qualification is certainly no guarantee of a job.

Both within and outside their community there is now a strong sense that improvements are urgently needed. Education is sometimes considered as a form of cultural colonialism; however it is the key to emancipating the Roma. In order to overcome this situation, there needs to be improvements in language teaching, more attention should be given to schools for the Roma culture and the Roma themselves could play a more active role in teaching.

Fortunately, within the younger generation of Roma, more and more are better educated and prepared to put up a better defence of the Roma's interests to the local authorities and governments. This is a huge step forward. The revival and strengthening of Roma culture, which has made major contributions to Europe's cultural wealth in the past, could serve to promote the emancipation and full involvement of this minority in society. This in turn could help stop the group's isolation.

Roma leaders should speak out more openly about how their community works. Greater transparency would make them less mysterious and this would create a psychological bridge to the outside world. In turn, those around them will be encouraged to find out more about Roma culture. There are plenty of examples of local initiatives where this type of cooperation has proved effective.

Education is one of the main areas of concern, but the problem of exclusion also features in other areas. Unemployment among the Roma is very high, generally irrespective of the rate of unemployment in the country in which they live. Discrimination by employers, including authorities, is one of the main causes. Many studies have shown that Roma are often barred from applying for jobs. While under communist rule they were employed in state enterprises or government institutions, after 1989, they were often the first to be laid off as a result of reforms. The fact that many of them are poorly skilled is another reason for their weak position in the labour market.

Housing is an issue as well, an area in which problems have actually sometimes increased after 1989. Many lost the houses that they had been allocated under the old regime and they could no longer count on help from state enterprises. If they fell behind with the rent, they were immediately evicted, something to which they were not accustomed. Those who neglected the houses they owned suddenly faced problems, since their houses were claimed by other people. Many who lost their houses in this way sought shelter illegally elsewhere without being registered, usually with their families. The consequences include local overpopulation and even ghetto-isation. Living somewhere illegally can result in the loss of other rights and the often intolerable living conditions tend to generate negative reactions from the rest of the population.

An international framework

Is it then true that the transition in Central Europe has brought little benefit to the Roma? The impression is that they have little in these societies that they can rely on. Fortunately this is not the case. For one, the prospect of structural improvement is there, if only we put in place effective policies, at local, national and European level. In this respect, we should also build our policies from the principle of equal citizenship. Roma are often unaware of their rights, which is why it is important to strengthen Roma organisations working in this field.

These could play a crucial role in calling for compliance with the rules designed to protect minorities. Laws and conventions to combat discrimination and to ensure equal treatment have been adopted at international, national and regional levels. Discrimination on grounds of race or ethnic origin contravenes the fundamental principles of international law. Equal treatment and non-discrimination relate not only to civil liberties but also to cultural, economic and social rights. The international rules ban both direct and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination means that a person is penalised because of their race or ethnic origin. Indirect discrimination occurs when, for example, neutral rules prejudice people of a different ethnic background or race.

A large number of countries have also signed up to the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. It states that signatories must guarantee those belonging to national minorities (such as the Roma) the right to equality before the law and to equal protection.

There are various institutions in Europe which are working to improve the situation of the Roma. Since 1996, the Council of Europe has a specialist group on Roma, although the organisation has been involved with their problems for much longer. In the mid-1980s a member of its parliament asked the Council of Europe whether the European Convention on Human Rights applied to the Roma. From today's perspective, asking this question seems absurd because its affirmative answer is so obvious. However, the fact that it was asked gives us a good indication of how little importance was attached to the Roma's situation at the time. Initially the Council of Europe mainly dealt with problems relating to housing and education (in conjunction with the EU on the latter). In the early 1990s, there was a move towards to a more integrated approach. For the first time in history, the Roma were involved and consulted in these discussions.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is also working on the plight of the Roma. In 2000, the then High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, produced a detailed report on the situation of the Roma. The High Commissioner's remit primarily covers conflict prevention. It is thus particularly striking that he has done so much work on this minority, given that it does not involve conflict. He obviously considered the situation sufficiently serious.

All OSCE member states have signed international treaties and conventions banning discrimination. However, in the High Commissioner's view, many OSCE members failed to fulfil their obligation to guarantee the integrity of the Roma. According to the relevant international agreements, states must not only refrain from discrimination, but must also take positive action to guarantee the rights of the individual. States must also avoid undesirable red tape. Adhering to the principle of formal equality, as opposed to giving special privileges, is not a good approach because it strengthens the position of the majority in relation to the minority.  An important step was thereafter taken with the 2003 OSCE Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area, to which all new EU member states have signed up. It continues to be one of the cornerstones of the international efforts to promote Roma inclusion.

The European Union only became interested in the Roma when it started the enlargement process. Policy on minorities remains primarily a national responsibility in the EU and effective European legislation to combat discrimination is a relatively recent development. However, these issues were given significant attention during accession negotiations in order to ensure respect for human rights. Now, as EU-citizens Roma can rely on European anti-discrimination legislation. This allows them to take cases against their own governments to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

In the run up to enlargement, the European Commission was responsible for monitoring compliance with the requirements that the EU had imposed on the accession countries. Its first reports clearly showed that, although the situation of minorities was generally improving, this was not the case for the Roma. The Commission alerted several countries to the lack of measures to combat poverty amongst the Roma. As a result, many started to formulate policies on the Roma. The European Parliament approved the membership of a number of countries only after they had presented their strategy and plans to improve the situation of the Roma.

East-West politics: multicultural issues on both sides

It is all too easy to blame the new member states for not acting effectively against discrimination of Roma. The case of the Roma is, in a sense, a reflection of our own problems in dealing with a multicultural society. In wealthy Western Europe, we have more resources to take measures, but very often these fail to deliver changes. This also applies to the Roma, as we can see from their situation in France, Greece and Spain.

This is a multicultural issue that will not be resolved overnight. It is a question of adapting or not adapting. Even in the old EU this is a complicated issue. What are the general rules that should be obeyed and where can exceptions be made on cultural grounds? Some Roma appear to fear the official culture as undermining their own and there is some historical justification for their mistrust. However, by isolating themselves, they often miss opportunities to emancipate themselves. There is disagreement within the Roma community itself. The younger generation has a more open attitude than the older. Some want greater recognition of their cultural identity; others want recognition as a territorial or a non-territorial minority.

The Roma community encompasses a wide range of groups and sub-groups which live all over Europe. It is no more than obvious that there should be different movements and attitudes. Whilst recognising this diversity, it is essential that the Roma be represented at European level in order to facilitate consultation and cooperation.

Political participation for the Roma is an absolute priority therefore, also at the European level. But improvements also need to be made at national level, where the number of Roma MPs can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is also a responsibility for Roma communities, which often find it difficult to identify with representative democracy. Who should represent whom?

The problem of discrimination against the Roma exists here and now. The Council of Europe and the OSCE, and increasingly the European Union are, along with local, national and international NGOs, involved in addressing the issue. National governments play their role. Very often, is not so much the latter that are first to blame. They are working to set up anti-racism programmes to change attitudes at all levels of government and in all sections of the population. They have introduced legislation to combat discrimination in line with EU standards. But implementation remains problematic. Measures introduced at the top often take a long time to trickle down to the grassroots level. For example, policies and initiatives formulated in national capitals are not always in the interest of local politicians, who fear that too much positive discrimination will lose them votes, particularly in areas where there is an unusually high concentration of Roma people. This continues to be a problem.

The passive attitude of the authorities already began to change in the mid-1990s and problems were acknowledged. Red tape has been replaced by action programmes to combat discrimination and social exclusion. The EU has been fully involved in this, but in doing so has created expectations among the authorities and the general public. It has thus become jointly responsible and must now provide much more than technical advice. More money is needed, as is greater coordination and better exchanges of information in member states and in Brussels. The Roma see the EU as the organisation that is finally going to push through improvements and we must not let them down.

The Roma can no longer be classified as a marginal minority. They will undoubtedly seize the opportunities offered by EU membership to sound alarm bells even more loudly in Brussels. And in view of the importance of their social and political involvement, as we have repeatedly stressed, we can only welcome this development. Account will have to be taken of the special nature of this European minority, which is a very striking expression of the enormous and much-vaunted cultural diversity of Europe. They are still surrounded by a high, invisible wall. Tearing this down will require much more work.

Towards a European Roma Strategy

The last couple of years have seen two major developments. The first is the Decade of Roma Inclusion, an intergovernmental initiative to which, among others, all of the new EU member states with sizeable Roma minorities have signed up to. This framework signals a clear commitment from national government to address the issue of Roma exclusion. It is a welcome signal, since it is generally felt that positive developments since the enlargement have not accelerated as much as we had previously perhaps expected. The results thus far are mixed. In Hungary, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the frontrunners in the decade of Roma Inclusion, a myriad of initiatives has been taken by the government and have led to encouraging results. In other countries much more remains to be done.

That is connected to the second important development: the call for a more active role of the European Union. The European Parliament adopted a crucial resolution in this respect in April 2005, calling on the European Commission to come forward with concrete proposals to provide for better coordination of policies at different levels to address the exclusion of Roma in Europe. Although the European Commission did develop a number of initiatives, its activities have so far been far less than what was requested by the European Parliament.

But the pressure is growing. In December 2007, for the first time in history, the European Council, gathering all European government leaders made a reference to Roma in its conclusions, clearly recognizing that the European Union itself has a role to play to combat exclusion of Roma. It was maybe somewhat bitter that the move came as a reaction to the events in Italy, mentioned in the introduction. But the urgency of taking action was finally felt.

The European Parliament has not remained silent on the issue. The general feeling is one of disappointment that firmer action has not been taken since 2004. With the full involvement of members of European Parliament from both old and new member states, the European Parliament took the initiative for a debate with the European Commission in January 2008, which led to the adoption of a resolution that unequivocally called on the European Commission to formulate a comprehensive Roma Strategy.

Much of the groundwork for formulating such a strategy has already been done, included in the many reports non-governmental organisations, agencies and even the European institutions themselves, have drawn up over the years. The main elements can be summarized in nine Cs.

Firstly, comprehensive. The European Union should develop a broad and long term policy aimed at promoting Roma inclusion in all EU member states and neighbouring countries, starting from the principle of equal citizenship and taking into account the heterogeneity of both the problems faced by Roma communities and the great potential of Romani people.

Secondly, cross-sector. A horizontal approach across different policy fields addressing discrimination and equal access to employment, education, health services and housing in all EU member states, as well as mainstreaming of Roma issues into sectoral policies, national action plans and development strategies.

Thirdly, common responsibility. A European Roma strategy should encourage and support national governments and hold them to account. Roma inclusion policy should closely involve and target local and regional authorities.

Fourthly, cash. Adequate funding should be made available to benefit all social groups facing social exclusion, while funding for initiatives specifically targeted at Roma needs to be earmarked.

Fifthly, clear indicators and benchmarks to allow for the monitoring of projects and the evaluation of policy initiatives as well as the effectiveness of funding. Six: capacity. Administrative back up in the European Commission services has to reflect the high level of political commitment to the issue. In addition there should be a clear designation of responsibility for the Roma issue in the European Commission.

In the seventh place: coordination. The European Union should aim to create synergies with existing initiatives, among others The Decade of Roma Inclusion, the OSCE Roma Action Plan for Roma and Sinti and the activities of the Council of Europe, to avoid duplication of efforts. Eighth: capabilities. There should be a clear focus on human resource development with a view to activating the potential that exists among Roma.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: consultation. Involvement of Roma representatives in policy formulation at all levels and promotion of their participation in all levels of public administration, along with targeted efforts to enhance political representation of Roma citizens, is an absolute precondition to achieve a successful strategy.

While the exact details are for the European Commission and the member states to fill in, it is our role to as the European Parliament to make sure the shared responsibility is taken up by all involved and that commitments to European values, protection against discrimination, respect for fundamental freedoms, equal chances for all citizens, an inclusive society, are being put into practice.

April 2008

Jan Marinus Wiersma is Vice President of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament


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