Last month in the Hungarian town of Gyöngyöspata, uniformed neofascist paramilitaries, backed up by skinhead auxiliaries with whips and pit bulls, set up checkpoints and patrolled a Roma settlement with seeming impunity, as policemen stood idly by. According to eyewitness reports, the local police looked on while guardsmen intimidated Roma women and children on their way to and from school, and spat on members of parliament who dared crossed the lines to meet local Roma leaders.
The siege lasted for two and a half weeks. One local mother described how her child came home from school terrified by the taunting from the fascists: "saying that we are going to die, our blood will flow." She said that all parents were keeping their children home from school, but feared being penalized and losing their child benefit if the kids missed more than 50 classes.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimed that "ugly things could have happened" and were avoided because the police acted with sufficient deterrent force.
I beg to differ: it is a profoundly ugly thing for democracy when the state’s monopoly on the use of force is usurped by fascist militias acting on the behest of the Jobbik party, whose representatives sit in both the Hungarian and European Parliaments. It is a profoundly ugly thing when ethnic minority citizens are terrorized, abused, and besieged in a manner reminiscent of the 1930s.
Jobbik and its foot-soldiers have vowed to repeat the exercise in other towns and villages across Hungary. This signals a clear intent by the far right to instill fear among Roma citizens. For too many Roma, this scenario seems more likely than the dawning of a new day of inclusion, equality, and mutual respect.
But the latest attempt at forging a strategy on Roma inclusion by the European Union marks a step in the right direction. The European Commission’s request that all member states develop and implement targeted strategies, and devote sufficient resources to promote integration in four priority areas (health, housing, education, and employment) takes it cue directly from the Decade of Roma Inclusion. And this new document may signal that Roma integration has moved from the margins to the mainstream of policy concerns in a wider Europe.
However the framework is lacking in one key area. On March 8, a resolution of the European Parliament called on the Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) to link social inclusion priorities to a clear set of objectives that included protection of citizens against discrimination in all fields of life; promotion of social dialogue between Roma and non-Roma to combat racism and xenophobia; and for the Commission, as guardian of the treaties, to ensure full implementation of relevant legislation and appropriate sanctions against racially motivated crimes. This link is missing.
The challenge facing a European Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies is stark. There are two possible scenarios for Europe 2020:
- There is the viable prospect of forward-looking and fully inclusive societies that foster a sense of common belonging, cohesion and mutual respect among all citizens regardless of their ethnicity.
- There is another possible future for Europe: One of illiberal democracies and increasingly closed societies where Roma are denigrated and humiliated as scapegoats and pariahs.
Continued exclusion is not only ethically repugnant but also economically stupid: it impoverishes and humiliates Romani men, women, and children every day. Continued exclusion carries a hefty cost for society: as the economists remind us, it’s costly in terms of human capital needlessly squandered.
But there is another cost: continued exclusion and anti-Gypsyism degrades the quality and moral standing of Europe’s democracies and corrupts the sense of citizenship as something that binds us together as equals.
Without a doubt for most people, EU Roma Summits, platforms, and communications seem remote from the reality on the ground. For now, Roma communities continue not only to endure acute poverty and discrimination, but now find themselves literally under siege.