The following originally appeared in E!Sharp. Heather Grabbe is director of the Open Society Institute–Brussels and director of EU affairs for the Open Society Foundations.
The EU broke new ground on justice and fundamental rights last year when Commissioner Viviane Reding issued an ultimatum to France to come into line with European law which guarantees free movement of persons.
She demanded that Paris show it was giving effective rights to the Roma who were (and still are) being deported en masse without due process of law to determine any guilt of individual men, women and children.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy reacted with outrage, but many of his citizens applauded the European Commission. They were horrified to see their republic–founded on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity–blatantly targeting an ethnic group for discriminatory treatment. Many smaller countries were secretly delighted at the spectacle of Brussels taking on a large, powerful founding member of the Union.
Regrettably, the Commission later pulled back from launching a groundbreaking legal case based on France’s violation of fundamental rights. Its positive spin is that the threat of infringement proceedings served notice to all member states that they will in future have to provide evidence, not just assurances by ministers, that they are implementing the free movement directive in a way that does not target the Roma on racial grounds.
Will this inhibit other member states from targeting the Roma as blatantly as France has done? The evidence is mixed. Last autumn, Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy was contemplating an extension of the “security package” that had led to the forced evictions of thousands of Roma, some of whom are Italian citizens, and the forcible taking of fingerprints and other data. Other countries have been quietly deporting Roma too.
The risk is that EU member states will get into a race to the bottom if each tries to be more coercive than its neighbors in order to make life more uncomfortable for the Roma in its cities than in other countries. Harsh measures to force Roma out are legally dubious, usually discriminatory and unlikely to be effective.
Periodic deportations and destruction of camps will not persuade people to stay in their countries of origin if they have no prospects for a better life there. And cash payments for “voluntary repatriation” encourage people to come back to claim more.
Unless they wave goodbye to their values completely, at some point European leaders will have to stop treating the Roma as a temporary security problem, and recognize them as people who have rights both as human beings and as European citizens. There are 12 million Roma in Europe–a larger population than that of many member states.
They are also one of Europe’s oldest minorities, having arrived around 800 AD, but they still suffer discrimination and poverty across the continent, and outright persecution in many EU states. They are denied equal access to housing, shunted into segregated schools, and face barriers to health care. About 25 percent of all Roma are illiterate and 40 percent of Roma children do not attend school at all. No wonder they are willing to move from poorer countries to richer ones, even if few are culturally nomadic anymore.
The Iron Curtain no longer holds the poor and persecuted behind closed borders. On the contrary, the EU is actively promoting free movement for citizens as a positive benefit of European integration. European governments cannot stop people moving without undermining the single market, which is founded on freedom of movement for goods, services, capital and people, or rolling back the Schengen agreement by re-introducing border checks.
The EU’s credibility as a values-based organization is at stake. A vital test of a tolerant society is how it treats its most vulnerable – and many member states are failing that test. The world’s media, from Al-Jazeera to CNN Türk and Russian TV, are running stories about racist persecutions in Europe. It is much harder to preach human rights abroad when they are not respected at home.
There could yet be a silver lining in this dark cloud over Europe if it leads to a comprehensive, EU-wide strategy to integrate the Roma. After all, this is exactly the kind of crossborder, pan-European question that the EU was created to resolve. The plight of the Roma is the ultimate challenge for the “social inclusion” policies that the EU developed to accompany market liberalization, and the European values enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty.
What would a pan-European, long-term solution look like? It would combine legal protections to prevent discrimination with positive measures to promote the social inclusion of Roma, especially children.
The EU’s racial equality directive gives it the necessary legal tools but it is not consistently implemented or enforced. Member states are also bound by their commitments to the European Convention on Human Rights, of which the provisions on equality ban segregation of children in schools, according to several landmark rulings by the Strasbourg court since 2007.
However, Roma children are still being segregated into classes for the mentally disabled just because of their ethnicity in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Both the European Union, through the Commission, and the Council of Europe need to press their respective member states to enforce international law and court verdicts.
For social inclusion, the Commission has both money and policy frameworks to help. The EU’s regional and social funds can be spent on housing for Roma, as well as education, training and employment. But only a fraction of this money is actually reaching the Roma in the poorest member states, because their governments lack the political will and administrative capacity to use it. The high-level task force on funding for Roma set up by Commissioner Reding in the wake of the French scandal needs to be made into a permanent body to oversee improvements in removing obstacles at both EU and local levels to make better use of the available funds.
Most of the policy measures that would bring the Roma into mainstream society are national responsibilities rather than EU competences–particularly education, health, housing and employment. The Commission’s role needs to be that of a standard-setter and coordinator, ensuring that countries share policy expertise and best practice, while keeping them up to the mark by monitoring and evaluating their progress.
An EU-level policy should not let national governments off the hook, but rather call them to account for their successes and failures. Several member states, notably Finland and Spain, have succeeded in better integrating their Roma and should share these experiences. The EU needs a political forum for frank discussion of which policies work and which have manifestly failed, and to include the Roma in these discussions.
It could take decades to improve the situation, as many Roma communities have suffered centuries of discrimination and generations of unemployment, so their expectations and those of the majority society will take time to adjust. But the start is long overdue: the Roma have already suffered twelve hundred years of exclusion.
The EU has to show that it is a community of values as well as a common market. The outrage from many quarters at France’s measures showed that Europeans are not so apathetic about their values as their politicians often assume. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights just became legally binding. For it to have meaning, the Union has to set out a positive agenda for Roma inclusion, and the Commission should be quick to blow the whistle on governments that violate EU law and ride roughshod over European values.