On International Roma Day, which falls on 8 April, the significant proportion of Europe’s 12 million Roma who live in deplorable conditions will not have much to celebrate. And poverty is not the only worry for the community.
Ethnic tensions are on the rise. In 2008, Roma camps came under attack in Italy, intimidation by racist parliamentarians is the norm in Hungary, and in September of last year thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets to chant such slogans as ‘Turn the gypsies into soap’.
Speaking in 1993, ‘Vaclav Havel prophetically remarked that “the treatment of the Roma is a litmus test for democracy”: and democracy has been found wanting. The consequences of the transition to capitalism have been disastrous for the Roma. Under communism they had jobs, free housing and schooling. Now many are unemployed, many are losing their homes and racism is increasingly rewarded with impunity.
EU role is limited
There was the prospect of some improvement at the end of the 1990s, when Central and Eastern European countries were preparing to join the EU. “Roma leaders were extremely happy”, recalls former MEP Jan Marinus Wiersma. Candidate member states brought their legislation into line with EU standards and presented ambitious plans.
However, as NGOs and Roma activists have pointed out, these initiatives turned out to be window-dressing. For example, in Bulgaria, official figures reported a surge in the numbers of Roma finding jobs.
“In practice, they were sacked after a few months”, explains Bulgarian researcher Ilona Tomova in her office in Sofia. “In the communist countries, we were practised in the art of manipulating figures. But the EU did not see this.”
Now that these countries have have joined the EU, Brussels has lost its ability to exert pressure on them points out Rob Kushen, the director of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest.
Moreover, the European Commission is bound by the principle of subsidiarity: “With respect to the Roma, European member states have to the most important role in the areas of education, labour, housing and health. Ours is a coordinating role”, says Matthew Newman, a spokesman for Human Rights and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.
However, Brussels can exert an influence on policy via European Funds. In the period 2007-2014, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia each received 172 million euros earmarked for the Roma.
Member states that are home to Roma populations can also apply for funding from wider social programmes, which can tap into a total budget of 17.5 billion euros.
Slovakia received 200 million Euros for a new programme on which Roma representative Klara Orgovanova worked, along with a team of thirty people, from 2001 through 2006.
How the grant money disappeared
But when a new SMER and Slovak National Party coalition came to power in July 2006, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that National Party leader Ján Slota suggested that the best way to tame a Roma is with “a long whip in a small back garden”.
Thereafter, the bulk of the funds were appropriated for new traffic lights, technical equipment in hospitals, and even for football clubs with no Roma members. Orgovanova and her team were sacked.
Funds have been pocketed by fake NGOs, or channeled into the salaries of highly placed corrupt civil servants, at least this is the conviction expressed by former MEP Els de Groen, pro-Roma activists and the journalists involved in BIRN, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
That said, sometimes the misuse is not always intentional: grant applications are complex and require a good understanding of EU jargon.
Faced with an upsurge in racism compounded by the attempted Italian census in 2008, and, perhaps more importantly, in the wake of France’s decision to deport Roma in 2010, the European Commission has limited its criticism to arguments about violations of the right to free movement, setting aside issues of racial equality.
It is a reaction that has been deemed to be wanting by human rights organisations. According to Nele Meyer of Amnesty International, the Commission is reluctant to take further action because “discrimination and anti-gypsyism are extremely controversial political issues”.
‘The Commission cannot be a fundamental rights super cop’, says Human Rights and Justice spokesman Matthew Newman, who also points to the the “low level of absorption” of the EU subsidies intended for the Roma. “Only a proportion is requested. Roma are not a political priority.”
With regard to Romania, Valeriu Nicolae, the Roma director of the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities remarks: “For the period 2007-2013, Romania received around 230 million Euros. We have a million Roma. That is not even 20 cents per Rom per day.”
Why does the Commission not appoint a Euro Commissioner for minorities? “Member states are afraid that he or she would also take an interest in the plight of Hungarians in Romania or the Basques in Spain’, says Jan Marinus Wiersma, while Hungarian MEP Kinga Göncz raises another understandable fear. “Countries could then think: ‘Oh great, Brussels will take care of it.’”
In the wake of the dramas in Italy and France, the Union appears intent on adopting a more active approach. In April 2011, the European Council backed a resolution for an ‘EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies’.
Livia Jaroka– the only European Parliamentarian of Roma descent – is enthusiastic about the attention that is now being given to the socioeconomic benefits of Roma integration, because “politicians are not going to help the Roma just like that.”
However, the Commission is still relying on member states to find solutions. What that amounts to in practice was recently demonstrated by Hungary, where “the Viktor Orban government lowered the age of compulsory education, allowing Roma children to leave school earlier”, says Rob Kushen of the ERRC.
It indicates how extremely difficult it is to get something done for the Roma in the current climate. In a number of European countries, the government has to cope with a right-wing extremist opposition: and in Hungary’s case, Viktor Orban has to contend with Jobbik, a party that is openly anti-Roma. So, in spite of the fact that it is sorely needed, change will not be easy to achieve. As Kushen points out, “Democracy is also about the protection of minorities. But Orban does not seem to understand that.” It is precisely what Havel warned against in 1993.