COMMENT: Roma civil society can learn from both mistakes and local successes to make inclusion work

COMMENT: Roma civil society can learn from both mistakes and local successes to make inclusion work
A Roma family speaks out against government plans to demolish homes in Garmen, Bulgaria. / Anton Chalakov for the Open Society Foundations
By Andrew Ryder, Nidhi Trehan, Marius Taba March 22, 2022

Poverty and exclusion continue to remain a serious issue for Roma minorities across Europe, with high unemployment rates, substandard housing and segregated schooling. The European Roma are also subject to intense hate speech and acts of racism rooted in centuries-old European tropes that dehumanise them and manifest as anti-gypsyism, Roma experts told an online meeting organised by the British Labour Party’s Central and Eastern European branch last month.

The former Hungarian Roma MEP Viktoria Mohácsi – who is currently in Canada in a protracted struggle for asylum thererecounted how over a decade ago, racist thugs had gone on a killing spree in Hungary killing six Romani people, including a five-year-old child. This dramatically highlighted the hate directed towards Roma communities, a racial animus that Mohácsi felt far-right and authoritarian populists were still mobilising in orchestrated xenophobic campaigns against Roma.

There is deep disappointment over the rate of progress of various Roma inclusion policies of the European Union over the last few decades. The EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies was launched in 2011 by the European Commission and had asked member states in partnership with Roma communities to devise action plans for inclusion.  But a number of activists noted that the plans were weak or failed to deliver and Roma empowerment was too often tokenistic.

Per Martin Kovats, a political scientist and a one-time advisor to former EU Commissioner on Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Laszlo Andor, said: “The Roma Framework is an experiment in transnational racialised governance. The first framework set a very low bar with only four targets, three of which were that the gap between Roma and the rest would not increase, and that all Roma children should complete primary school. Nevertheless, it failed to achieve a single one of these targets”.

Stanislav Daniel, a Slovak Roma civil society activist, felt taxpayers might rightly despair at the money that was being wasted on ineffective inclusion policies, and said it was better to allocate the money needed and get the job properly done rather than repeating a cycle of ill-thought-out and badly funded and executed projects.

Monitoring and evaluation reports have confirmed these concerns. The economic downturn of the last decade, austerity and most recently the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have further hindered inclusion efforts.

Nidhi Trehan, a political sociologist affiliated to the Central European University, outlined the new EU Strategic Framework for promoting Roma equality, social inclusion and participation, launched in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which again is asking member states to make action plans.  

However, Trehan noted that this time the framework has stronger targets and indicators, with an aim to cut the poverty gap between Roma and non-Roma in the EU by 50%. She also noted that it alludes to intersectionality, an appreciation that exclusion can happen across areas beyond race, such as gender, disability and income, and be interconnected, thus requiring tailored and nuanced strategies to address it.

Reference is also made in the framework to anti-gypsyism, and Gwendolyn Albert, a pro-Roma activist based in the Czech Republic, said she hoped the racist mindset of European society could be reorientated through cultural promotion by bodies such as the European Institute for Roma Arts and Culture (ERIAC), which could work in tandem with effective socio-economic inclusion strategies to eradicate racist stereotypes about the Roma.

Albert argued that such cultural work needs to avoid the romanticism of narrow forms of cultural representation and provide a showcase for new and innovative expressions of Roma identity in the 21st century. Indeed, one of the guests, prominent American anthropologist Carol Silverman, argued that it was in the realm of culture that anti-Romani stereotypes and tropes can be challenged most effectively, with the increased visibility of Romani cultural entrepreneurs. 

Empowerment at local level

Despite the great disappointment of the last decades, Costel Bercus, a Romanian Roma civil society leader and policymaker, felt that there had been some success, mostly at the local level, where Roma communities had been empowered to address exclusion in community projects based on the principles of inclusive development; in other words, Roma at the local level had had a real say in shaping and steering community development.

Bercus felt the key to Roma inclusion was to learn from these good practice innovations and scale them up. It was argued such local projects need to work in tandem with state programmes robustly addressing inequality across society.

Pierre Mirel, an experienced French diplomat and European Commission civil servant, who spent a considerable part of his career on the accession of Central and Eastern European states, felt it was deeply ironic that given the growing shortage of skilled workers in Europe, that even countries such as Hungary, which appear to be hostile to migrants, are now welcoming non-EU skilled workers to come and do the work. Mirel emphasised that despite the nativist rhetoric of its leaders, the “crazy thing was there were Roma in the country who could be trained to do this work”.

He argued that European policymakers needed to push not only the moral case for Romani inclusion, but the economic one as well. He freely admitted that thus far the EU had failed in this area.

MEP Romeo Franz of the German Greens, a prominent Romani member of the EP, echoed Mirel’s thoughts. “Roma are a young population, indeed 40% are children and adolescents. If member states can ensure equal access to quality services, including early childhood development and educational services, health, housing and employment, just imagine the positive difference this investment could make! Not only would the Roma improve their lives, but it would also allow them to contribute fully to the future of the EU and the countries in which they live.”    

The meeting also recognised Roma civil society had reached a critical landmark, it now being just over 50 years since one of the first community organisations, The Gypsy Council, was formed in 1966 in the UK.  

Jenő Setét, a Hungarian Roma activist who, sadly, died in January, was cited by CEU student and Roma youth activist Katalin Rostas as a consummate community leader, inspiring many Hungarian Roma and mobilising them effectively in public campaigns against the segregation and marginalisation that they faced. Rostas felt Jenő was a model of effective and inclusive leadership in contrast to corrupt Roma politicians in Hungary who were working closely with authoritarian populist PM Viktor Orban.

Iulius Rostas, a Romanian Roma academic based in Berlin, suggested that there had been progress in some areas, in the sense that the EU Roma framework created platforms and arenas through which Roma can articulate their hopes and frustrations.

It was important for the EU and governments to respect those voices, listen and act. He suspected, though, that the age-old strategy of Roma migrating to other countries looking for work would act as a brake on the power to act, as sadly some political leaders are only willing to push Roma inclusion when it was seen as a way of stemming a flow of feared Roma migration.

Holding governments to account

Martin Kovats, who currently is an expert consultant to the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), stated that Social Democrats have a crucial role to play in addressing the fundamental flaw of Roma policy, that is, insufficient domestic accountability of national authorities. The left is ideologically better placed to promote civic-based social cohesion through systemic reform, at both governmental levels, and in terms of wider societal debate. Each society has to accept the changes necessary to bring about equality of opportunity in that society.

For example, progressive parties should try to ensure that their country’s National Roma Platform involves the right people and is capable both of holding the government to account and of moving public opinion towards acceptance of more effective policy interventions. Nonetheless, he did caution against the singling out of European Roma at the EU level of policy, noting that this was unusual for Europe, thus furthering the risks of racialisation and polarisation of an already beleaguered minority.

Also, speaking from the UK, Phil Martin noted that despite adopting an integrated set of policy measures within the UK’s social inclusion policies in 2011, the British government had not adopted an NRIS (as many member states did on the continent), and is effectively outside the new Roma Strategic Framework, whilst the situation of Gypsies and Travellers continues to deteriorate.

Moreover, Martin pointed out that in a post-Brexit scenario, there is concern over the impact on Roma and Travellers of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.  Home Secretary Priti Patel is introducing new draconian measures that criminalise nomadism in the UK despite there being a national shortage of authorised stopping places and Traveller sites, which the Conservative government has done little to address.

One of the serious Brexit legacy issues facing Roma who migrated to the UK is the difficulty they experience in gaining formal status to remain there – not least because of the challenge in obtaining documentary proof from the embassies and consulates of their countries of origin.

Nonetheless, many CEE Roma immigrants to the UK want to stay, not because its great but because there is hope, particularly for young people who have gone through British schools. Some campaigners have started to call for the UK to opt into the new EU Roma Strategic Framework, and where possible, continue to benefit from the sharing of good practice and targets to cut inequality.

Marius Taba, a UK-based Romanian Roma academic and policy expert and co-author with Ryder and Trehan of the open access book ‘Romani Communities and Transformative Change: A New Social Europe’, continued the theme of a transformative approach to Roma issues by stating that recognition and redistribution should be important components of a Roma inclusion strategy. In other words, cultural promotion and reinterpretation was needed that moved beyond romanticism and cliché and challenged deeply ingrained anti-gypsyism in European culture.

Taba emphasised overcoming that laissez-faire paradigm with a more interventionist form of governance, one that is serious about closing the gap between the rich and poor in a ‘Social Europe’ reliant on state action – and not just market mechanisms – were key messages of the book.

Andrew Ryder, a UK academic based in Hungary, proposed that the group come together again in nine months, when it should be possible to track more clearly the progress of the new Roma Framework. He acknowledged the deep trials, setbacks and disappointments of recent years but was confident Roma civil society would learn from past policy mistakes and do its utmost in the coming years to make Roma inclusion work.

As MEP Romeo Franz stated in the European Parliament in 2020: “I am a Sinto, the son of a Holocaust survivor who lost six aunts and uncles in the Holocaust. I know how racism feels and I don’t want anyone to endure what my people and I have to endure on a daily basis … We not only have COVID-19 in Europe, but a pandemic that is older and even more dangerous – RACISM! Are we finally prepared to confront this reality and correct this injustice?”

The size of that challenge was forcibly demonstrated recently when an ultra-right member of the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO – Bulgarsko Natsionalno Dvizhenie), sitting MEP Angel Dzhambazki, gave the Nazi salute on the floor of the European Parliament. His actions were captured on video and he has been accused by leading EP officials of gross misconduct. 

Andrew Ryder is a UK academic based in Hungary. Nidhi Trehan is a political sociologist affiliated to the Central European University. Marius Taba is a UK-based Romanian Roma academic and policy expert. They are the co-authors of the open access book ‘Romani Communities and Transformative Change: A New Social Europe’.