In September 2008, the EU devoted a summit to Roma issues, part of a broader European effort to make 2005-15 the "decade of Roma inclusion." Valeriu Nicolae and Bernard Rorke, from the Open Society Institute's Roma Initiatives, review progress over the year.
The attendees at the first-ever EU Roma Summit were powerful: five European commissioners, representatives from member states and officials from the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the World Bank and the United Nations all took part.
The turnout indicated fresh political will within and outside the EU to develop coherent, unified and effective policies to promote Roma inclusion. The rhetoric was also suitably strong. Vladimír Špidla spoke out powerfully against the persecution of the Roma, and his fellow commissioner Jacques Barrot re-affirmed the Commission's commitment to ensuring respect for fundamental rights. The Commission has sustained this rhetoric over the past year, putting it at the forefront of positive Roma initiatives in Europe. This improvement is important. Language matters. It also demonstrates publicly a deeper change: in recent years, the Commission has moved from passive somnolence to active engagement.
Rhetoric has its limits, though. At times, those clamoring for "Europe" to do something seem oblivious to the limits of the institutions' competence. It also feeds a wider misconception that the EU can provide a panacea for ailments that are altogether more intimate—the primary responsibility to protect the rights, security and safety of citizens and to combat racism remains emphatically "at home", with national governments.
And, at that domestic level, the past year has been disturbing. A recent report by the Roma Education Fund, for example, shows that systemic over-representation of Roma in special education stubbornly persists in countries such as Slovakia; increasing money for the fund is a first step in closing the education gap between Roma and non-Roma.
In addition, just last month, Italy's Council of State approved the fingerprint of all Roma, as well as obliging Roma to wear special badges when leaving their camps, a disturbing repeat of fascist practices from the last century. Racially motivated violence has increased, with murders in Hungary, violence in Romania and a mob in Northern Ireland that forced Roma to seek sanctuary. Elsewhere, Roma houses have been set on fire, vandalized, and demolished. Hate speech too has flourished—sometimes through the mouths of local and national leaders.
In short, a year after the summit, officials' rhetoric has improved, but there has been a steep rise in popular prejudice, violence, and intimidation against Roma. While the cures primarily lie at the national level, the EU has a very important role to play. After the summit the Commission made an unprecedented effort to grapple with Roma issues: it created the EU Roma Platform, to bring EU institutions and civil society together to formulate a joined-up Roma policy, setting out a long-term strategy with effective, consistent and concrete action.
The platform could also be a focal point for changes within the Commission. Those, experts have suggested, should include the creation of a unit focused on Roma inclusion and a task force on anti-Gypsyism.
That has not happened. Nor does the Commission seem clear about how the platform should function, something reflected in the lack of specificity in the agenda for the platform's 28 September meeting. The platform needs to establish co-ordination mechanisms and facilitate implementation and monitoring. Right now, nearly five years into the decade of Roma inclusion, EU institutions—as well as European governments—are still falling short.