European shame over the Roma question

European strategies to ‘integrate’ Roma populations have failed due to lack due to a lack of inclusiveness.

Politicians working on ‘integration’ strategies for the Roma often do not understand their culture [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – Earlier this year, the European Commission published one of those beautiful documents called a “Communication” under the title “An EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020”.

The idea is to force the EU member states to devise their own national strategies for dealing with the Roma question. And this week, the Bulgarian government will dutifully accept a national strategy for Roma integration. The Communication is a result of lobbying, horror and the inadequate behaviour of President Sarkozy of France.

Many organisations lobby for Roma rights. However, most of them are weak, they rarely include any Roma people, they haven’t brought about any meaningful political change and they can’t even attract the attention of mainstream politicians.

That is why the birth of the EU Roma “Communication” needed a second push. When the European Union accepted 10 new states from Eastern Europe nobody realised that the enlargement came with the largest, and most deprived, ethnic minority. And nobody wanted to know.

Once the enlargement was a fact, Western Europe realised that five million Gypsies had entered the sparkling club and a few more million might come with the future enlargement.

This led to silent horror and fear. People were watching documentaries about Romas selling babies and running highway prostitution rings gasping in disbelief about what was happening on what was already EU territory and sinking into silent denial. European politicians did not go much further than replacing the term Gypsies with ‘Roma’, which they thought was more politically correct (which it is not, by the way).

At this point, Sarkozy came to the rescue. With his typical cartoon patriotic spontaneity, he ordered the expulsion of a group of Gypsies from France back to Romania. The EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding spotted a good high-profile opportunity, leapt against him and compared his act to the behaviour of German Nazis.

The silence was broken; many Roma activists came out of the dark and suddenly lit up like long-forgotten Christmas decorations all over the house. The European Commission prepared its “Communication” and now the European governments, mainly in the New Member States, started preparing national strategies. As one of the Bulgarian papers quite correctly put it: “The Government will adopt a Roma integration strategy in order to get access to European funds.”

A passing guilt complex

The question of whether the national strategies for Roma integration will work has a simple answer: they will not. The question of whether the European funds for Roma integration will be absorbed also has a simple answer: they will.

There are three problems. The first is that all of these strategies are prepared without the participation of Roma people. They do not reflect the views of Europe’s estimated 10-12 million-strong Roma population, and they cannot. The European Parliament has only one person of Roma origin. Around 10 per cent of the Bulgarian population is Roma, but there is exactly one half-Roma member in the 240 seats of the Bulgarian parliament.

The second problem is that strategies for Roma integration are based on a guilt complex which European citizens only feel intermittently – in the face of specific campaigns. But once a BBC documentary or an award winning Czech film about the plight of Gypsies is replaced in our mind by a flood in the Far East, a drought in Africa or a child abuse case in the Catholic Church; the Roma case will be forgotten.

Yes, there will always be some concerned EU Commissioner, a few MPs or Madonna asking during her Bucharest concert why Romanians discriminate against the Gypsies, but it is very unlikely that “Roma integration” or the “Roma inclusion” will be of lasting concern to citizens across Europe – East or West.

Roma populations in Europe have been consistently harrassed, mistreated and mistrusted [GALLO/GETTY]

Finally, the third problem is that the majority of Gypsies are in Eastern Europe, where there is no money and where there are no traces of political correctness. While European money to address the Roma question will be accepted with resentment and spent in full, these funds will by no means be sufficient to move the Roma cause forward. A permanent flow of substantial funds through national budgets is necessary if the problem is going to be solved with money.

There is also another fundamental question based on the fact that we do not know the best way to solve the Roma question. Why should we assume that “integration” is the right solution? And what does integration mean?

In Romania and Bulgaria, for example, one of the acts of integration is not allowing Gypsies to drive their horse carts on roads and in towns. This policy does not integrate the Gypsy with his horse cart into the life of the country: it separates the Gypsy from the horse cart, sends him on a course for waiters or to study MS Office and, when the training – probably paid for with EU money – finishes, society concludes in the end that the Gypsies cannot be integrated.

The truth is that we know very little about the Roma beyond the reported horror stories and the general prejudices that occupy our minds. We don’t speak their language, we don’t understand their traditions and moral code, we don’t know how many of them there are, we don’t differentiate between their unique communities and we do not have the slightest idea what they think about us.

Even many civil society organisations treat their Roma engagements with frustration or condescending humour.

A long history of marginalisation

Not only do we not know enough about the Gypsies, but we don’t want to know. And we simply don’t want them around. And when I say “we” I mean a very wide “we” – educated and uneducated Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks, Eastern European politicians, French presidents and Welsh mayors. Last year, a Welsh mayor said that Hitler had the “right idea about how to deal with Gypsies”. At least he showed some knowledge about the history of Roma persecution.

Hitler started his ethic cleansing with the Gypsies, when he got away with it, he went on to bigger things. In fact, he did not start the persecution of the Gypsies – he inherited elaborate discriminatory legislation specifically designed to keep the Gypsies away. Germany had anti-Gypsy laws since the end of 19th century. During the early days of Nazism, existing anti-Gypsy measures were strengthened and led to mass sterilisation and murder.

It is believed that under Communism, hundreds of Gypsy women were sterilised in Czechoslovakia. Human rights organisations claim that the practice continued after 1989. A couple of years ago, a Bulgarian Facebook group appeared under the title – “Sterilise first the Gypsies and then the dogs” (There are a lot of street dogs in Bulgaria and there are debates about whether it is humane to sterilise them.)

The group quickly gathered 20,000 members, and then grew by several hundred every a day. It took some time to take it off Facebook. In the meantime, model citizens – most of them with higher education – with detailed personal profiles, family and wedding pictures, proudly listing their professional achievements publishing their names, addresses, emails and mobile numbers were competing with each other about who could suggest a better method for getting rid of the Gypsies.

The imagination of the Bulgarian Facebook middle classes significantly surpassed the practices of the Nazis. According to Bulgarian law, many of the members of this group could have been prosecuted and even jailed for up to four years. Yet, no one in Bulgaria or anywhere in the European Union reacted.

The EU wants to be the perfect land, but it can’t. If it wants to be at least a land of real diversity it will have to learn more about its own minorities before trying to integrate them. This does not mean that we must not work hard to secure equal treatment for Gypsies, but that we must also work hard to preserve some level of respect and dignity for this centuries-old nation.

Future EU Communications on National Roma Strategies should be based on much better knowledge of their society and prepared with their participation.

Julian Popov is a journalist, consultant, director of the UK charity organisation, Friends of Bulgaria, and chairman of the Board of Directors at the Bulgarian School of Politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @julianpopov

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.