The statement by Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, on the situation of Roma in Europe is to be welcomed for its unequivocal and forthright commitment to Roma inclusion. It is a firm and eloquent rebuttal to criticisms that the Commission has remained silent in the wake of the crisis prompted by the actions taken against Roma by the French government. Her personal expression of regret that some of the rhetoric used in Member States of late has been "openly discriminatory and partly inflammatory" is a reminder of just how pervasive anti-Roma sentiment remains in Europe.
Protestations by the French that their actions in razing camps and repatriating Roma are neither racist nor discriminatory have cut little ice in the wider world. Such is the storm of criticism from right across the political spectrum, from religious and civic leaders across Europe, that for many, these actions have acquired the smear of turpitude. From within the French President’s own party, the policy was described as "turning disgraceful" and the camp evictions likened to World War II round-ups.
This latest tumult is but the incendiary tip of a deeply-rooted and long neglected social crisis of discrimination compounded by abject poverty that has been the plight of the Roma.
Ms. Reding’s offer that the Commission is prepared to initiate open, frank and honest dialogue with all Member States on how best to take on "our joint responsibility for Roma" came with a definite rider: that Member States "respect commonly agreed EU rules on free movement, nondiscrimination and the common values of the European Union, notably the respect for fundamental rights, including the rights of people belonging to minorities."
The participation of the Belgian EU presidency in the forthcoming informal September meeting called by the French of immigration ministers from the "big five" EU states will be important to ensure that the meeting does not live up to its prior billing as an "anti-Roma summit" in the wake of Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni’s declared intent to push for EU endorsement of automatic expulsion of Roma.
For many years, the Open Society Foundations have called for a comprehensive pan-European Roma strategy for inclusion at EU level. The Commission’s Communication in the wake of the 2nd EU Roma Summit last April marked the clearest declaration of intent to date. It openly recognized the need for a coordinated and coherent policy response that is proportionate to the scale of the problem. While the prime responsibility for policy measures to promote inclusion in employment, education, health and housing rests within Member States, the EU has a vital role to play. Reding’s offer that the European Commission "stands ready to act as a broker between Member States and to monitor and assess progress being made" needs to be acted upon.
The EU endorsement of "explicit but not exclusive targeting for Roma" made it possible for development funds to cover housing interventions in favor of marginalized communities, especially Roma. This is a very welcome step forward and the guiding principle of "explicit but not exclusive targeting" needs to be extended to policy and funding interventions in education, health and employment. To ensure that such measures actually make a difference to life chances in the slums and settlements for millions of Roma, the EU needs to go "beyond brokerage," set well-defined benchmarks, and devise a road-map for Roma inclusion.
The Fundamental Rights Agency should be mandated to conduct assessments across Member States, and the Commission should issue annual monitoring reports to accelerate progress, and identify and remedy the abject policy failures that blight so many lives. If the EU’s Platform for Roma Inclusion is to move beyond the realm of good intentions, it needs to be bolstered by a dedicated task force to coordinate, devise and drive policy, to set clear targets and rigorously monitor how European money is spent. There is an urgent need for profound and sustainable change, because the current situation is clearly unsustainable.
In blunt terms, as long as Roma face discrimination and deprivation in their own countries they will continue to migrate. Continued neglect in tackling, as Reding puts it, "the root causes leading Roma to abandon their homes and move across borders" comes at a high price. It creates a vacuum whereby the agenda can be set by right-wing radicals, racists and populists. Moral panics and heavy-handed security responses will not yield sound and sustainable policies for social cohesion and integration. If we are to remain, as Reding reminds us, "a Community of values and fundamental rights," all democrats need to remain very vigilant in the face of those who would make a mockery of these values and ride roughshod over fundamental rights.