At the end of January, I attended a meeting in the European Parliament hosted by Livia Járóka, whom most people know as the only current member of the European Parliament of Romani origin. The meeting was aimed at gathering support to launch a motion for a resolution by the European Parliament recognising the genocide suffered by the Roma during the Second World War.
Roma-related events hosted by European Union (EU) institutions tend to be rather dry, expert-dominated gatherings preoccupied with the obscure EU instruments that could be deployed to promote Roma inclusion. By way of contrast, Livia Járóka’s meeting was refreshingly direct and political in tone. The meeting ostensibly dealt with how best to commemorate the Porajmos (Romani word for Roma Genocide) but debate and discussion ranged wide on issues of past and present Roma exclusion, and how to confront the failure of the EU to provide Roma with the same rights as other EU citizens.
This is a timely debate. The European Commission recently launched 2013 as the “European Year of Citizens.” During 2013, the European institutions will be fostering dialogue between all levels of government, civil society, business, and citizens. The ambitious aims behind this initiative include raising awareness about the rights that come with EU citizenship; exploring how to overcome barriers to implementing these rights; and discussing how Europe can better serve the needs of its citizens. Ms Járóka’s event puts a reality check on these important commitments that should also apply to the millions of European Roma who do not enjoy the benefits of being treated as full EU citizens.
In one of the most striking contributions of the day, the respected intellectual Nicolae Gheorghe called for a “peace treaty between the EU and the Roma.” Gheorghe is a veteran Romani activist from Romania, and a political hero to many Roma. While talk of a “peace treaty” seems absurd at first, (not least because the Roma have never gone to war), Gheorghe’s call highlighted the need for some formal reckoning with the past. This echoes the truth commission that former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg called for in his report about the human rights of Roma and Travellers. As Hammarberg states, “a full account and recognition of these crimes might go some way to restoring trust amongst the Roma towards the wider society.”
The Roma, who were among the victims of the Nazis during the war, have never received formal recognition from the EU for the genocide they suffered. One of the main aims of the original European Communities—and indeed a reason behind the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize—was to achieve lasting peace in Europe. A key step in achieving peace has to be the delivery of justice, which can be achieved in part through formal acknowledgement of past atrocities committed on European soil. Mr. Gheorghe explained that this “treaty” should include a political commitment to recognise and fight deeply rooted racism against Roma in Europe, which includes expressly acknowledging Romaphobia as a particular form of racism; recognition of the genocide suffered by the Roma in Europe; and building a new image of Roma in Europe, not as victims but as equal Europeans.
In his concluding remarks, Gheorghe said that such a “treaty” would help Europe to fight its “culture of loneliness.” This term could have several meanings. For me, this relates to how Roma are isolated within European culture, how that isolation leads to a lack of mutual understanding, and how that disconnect leads to the further non-inclusion of Roma—especially on issues, rules, and regulations that most affect us. One thing is clear: a formal institutional reckoning, or coming to terms with Europe’s history of exclusion, expulsion, and genocide is long overdue. It is also very much needed to close the widening gap and to remedy the lack of mutual understanding between Roma and non-Roma populations, who too often fail to recognise one another as fellow citizens.
The main policy tool for delivering equality for Roma is the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. Does the implementation of this framework also suffer from a “culture of loneliness”? The low absorption of EU Funds for Roma Inclusion and lack of political will in the EU member countries signals the existence of a lack of mutual understanding between Roma, national authorities, and the European Commission. The fact that inclusion of Roma in developing and implementing policies is lacking as well as in decision making processes more generally, signals that policies and rules are being created in isolation from the citizens they are meant to serve. Finally, it is undeniable that the majority of Roma feel sometimes that they live in a foreign culture even when in their “home” countries.
It may be painful for the EU to shine a spotlight on the shortcomings of its approach to Roma. But if the EU cannot define and accept the problems it faces, it cannot propose adequate solutions. The Roma living in EU member countries are, for the most part, EU citizens. Recognition of the Roma genocide would not only help to address past feelings of injustice and create trust between the Roma and the EU, it would focus our attention on ensuring it can never happen again. This discussion also highlights the true gravity of violent attacks and other forms of continuing mistreatment of Roma across the EU.
The recognition of anti-Gypsyism as a form of racism would not only send a message that Roma are entitled to equal treatment; it would also help policy-makers understand that their approach to combating discrimination needs to be adapted to particular historical, social, and political contexts. Taking these steps may pave the way to ending the “culture of loneliness” in the implementation of the EU’s Framework, and make it more effective as a tool for promoting equality for all EU citizens.
The European Parliament has already called twice for the Council and member states to recognise the genocide suffered by the Roma—in 2005 and in 2008. In 2011, the parliament called for combating anti-Gypsyism, prejudices, stereotypes, and hate speech against Roma, notably by ensuring full implementation of relevant legislation and imposing appropriate punishment for racially motivated crimes. Unfortunately, these calls did not provoke reactions. Romani Rose, a prominent Sinti activist from Germany who invested his life’s work into recognition of the Roma and Sinti Genocide, saw the German authorities recognize the Genocide against Roma only in 1982. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently spoke in the Bundestag and inaugurated the Roma Genocide memorial in Berlin—20 years after the official recognition of the Roma suffering. Other European countries lag far behind.
As president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz could convince the chairs of the political groups to ensure that Parliament commits to resolutions that recognize the Roma Genocide and Romaphobia. If the European Parliament leads, rather than again calling on the Council and member states to act, we may force a reaction from EU capitals. That would really make 2013 a credible “year of citizens,” which includes the Roma.