Ending Europe’s Exclusion of Roma

The following originally appeared in the European Voice.

More than ten million Roma people live in the EU—more than the total population of many member-states—plus another four million in the Balkans and Turkey. In numerical terms, the Roma are anything but marginal. Yet no ethnic group in Europe suffers more social exclusion, worse discrimination and greater poverty.

This is the long-standing backdrop to the Second European Roma Summit that the EU’s rotating presidency, currently held by Spain, will host in Córdoba on April 8–9. The summit also comes at a time when political and social conditions for Roma are worsening in some parts of Europe: the past year has seen an upsurge in racist attacks—shootings of families, homes set on fire—as well as forced evictions and the building of walls around settlements.

The conditions that Roma face are a stain on the conscience of European societies, but also a strain on economic planning and social peace. By 2030, 16 percent of Slovakia’s under-18s will be Roma, according to a study by the Open Society Foundation Bratislava. The European Commission estimates that by 2040, 40 percent of the new entrants onto Hungary’s labor market will be Roma. Imagine how massive the social tensions will be if nearly half of Hungary’s school-leavers are still poor, uneducated and rejected by the rest of society.

There has been progress in the five years since ten European countries committed themselves to the Decade for Roma Inclusion. In Spain, there are positive stories about the integration of Roma in Córdoba and the rest of Andalusia. In Hungary, more Roma now have access to affordable housing; Roma in Romania have more possibilities to go to school; and Finland has seen a promising increase in the political representation of Roma.

But, for the most part, national governments have felt little compulsion to help this most marginalized of groups. In some countries, policies even add to discrimination and segregation: despite decades of calls for change, Roma children are still being segregated in schools and often placed in “special schools” with sub-standard education.

The EU can play a critical role. A policy of “explicit but not exclusive targeting of the Roma” means that the EU’s regional funds can be used specifically to help the Roma but also for other groups, where appropriate. This is a sound approach and its benefits are not simply monetary, because it obliges municipal authorities to provide matching sums and to take measures such as providing school buses for Roma children from isolated communities. More money should be earmarked and the approach should be extended to deliver similarly practical results for the Roma in terms of education, health, housing and jobs.

But the EU should also help at the strategic level. It should develop benchmarks, spread best practice and persuade member states to join up their strategies. It also needs to make its own efforts more cohesive. The Commission has developed a range of useful tools, but these are still scattered across policy areas and their effect is hard to measure.

What we would like to see is a comprehensive framework strategy for the Roma at an EU level, a proposal made by the European Parliament that has yet to elicit a response from the Commission.

At the very least, though, the summit must do more than the first European Roma Summit, which produced neither conclusions nor concrete proposals. The Spanish presidency of the EU needs to follow up with a clearly defined set of conclusions for discussion at the next European Council. Millions of Roma currently live in shanty-towns on the margins of European society. Without a concerted policy response, the challenges posed by such exclusion will not go away.

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