“An Unacceptable Reality”: The Situation of Roma in the European Union

On Tuesday, September 16, 2008, more than 400 leaders from across Europe gathered in Brussels for the first-ever EU Roma Summit. Convened by the French Presidency of the EU and the European Commission, the summit ended with a call by EU President José Manuel Barroso to put the plight of the more than 10 million Roma on the EU’s agenda. George Soros, chairman of the Open Society Institute, gave the following keynote address.

The European Union is, in my opinion, today perhaps the world’s best example of an open society, guided by the principles of democracy, tolerance, and international cooperation. An open society, in my definition, is an imperfect society that holds itself open to improvement. In no other area is the need for improvement as great as it is in the treatment of the Roma minority.

I won’t elaborate on the picture that President Barroso painted about the plight of the Roma in Europe today. To say that they do not enjoy equal opportunity is an understatement.

I can testify from personal knowledge that many Roma families and communities live in sub-human conditions. An unacceptable reality gives rise to a negative stereotype and the negative stereotype makes the situation of the Roma worse. The net result is the worst case of discrimination and social exclusion based on ethnicity in the European Union.

Most of the Roma population is concentrated in the new member states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Their living conditions have deteriorated from what they were during the communist regimes. No wonder that many of them migrate to the West. This has aroused racial prejudices in other member states, as the recent events in Italy demonstrate.

Such incidents should be of concern to the European Union and its individual member states, and they must develop strategies aimed at avoiding a recurrence of such events. This is why we are meeting here today.

I should tell you that I am deeply troubled by the precedent set by Roma profiling in Italy and worry that this could become a de facto European standard. I believe the targeted fingerprinting of Roma is a case of ethnic profiling and it should be illegal. I hope the European Court of Justice will establish this fact. But that should not be the main topic for discussion today. The challenge before us is to improve the situation of Roma.

I have been personally engaged in the Roma problem for more than 20 years. As a believer in the open society, I established a network of foundations to promote open society principles in Eastern Europe starting in Hungary as early as 1984. The foundations took up the case of the Roma from their inception. We took a comprehensive approach.

On the one hand, we sought to protect the human rights of the Roma. We founded the European Roma Rights Centre which engages in strategic litigation. Perhaps its greatest achievement to date is the ruling this year by the European Court of Human Rights on a case in Ostrava, Czech Republic, which established the principle that the segregation of Roma children in schools constitutes unlawful discrimination.

On the other hand, we sought to improve the capacity of the Roma people to participate in society on equal terms. Our main focus has been on education, and after 20 years we have some positive results to show. There is now a growing number of well-educated young Roma, who are proud of being Roma, and are willing and able to argue their case. I consider this a major breakthrough because it breaks the prevailing stereotype about the Roma.

In the past, when individual Roma made their way in the world, they tended to shed their Roma identity. So the stereotype that gypsies are uneducated and dangerous remained unchanged. Now well-educated young Roma are arguing their own case.

With the help of these young activists and the World Bank and the European Commission, we inaugurated the Decade of Roma Inclusion, beginning in 2005. The Decade brings together governments and nongovernmental organizations. Initially, there were eight participating countries, five of them members of the European Union. More recently, Spain, Bosnia, and Albania also joined. Each country draws up a national action plan for improving education, healthcare, housing, and employment opportunities for Roma, and the Roma organizations themselves, in true civil society fashion, review progress toward achieving the goals that have been set. Together with our partners we have established a Roma Education Fund, managed by the World Bank, which builds on education programs developed by my foundations and applies them on a larger scale.

The European Commission played a crucial role in the success of the Decade. In my opinion, the European structural funds are providing the main motor that keeps the Decade going, because these funds offer an incentive for the national governments to devote some effort and resources to improving the situation of the Roma. It has to be admitted that these efforts are not popular with the electorates of the countries concerned because of the negative stereotype that prevails. To overcome this resistance, the affirmative programs are designed to apply to socially excluded people in general—and not just the Roma—and this is as it should be. But, let’s not make any mistake about it; most of the socially excluded people in these countries are Roma. In these circumstances the financial support provided by the structural funds are indispensable for improving the situation of the Roma.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion provides a good foundation on which further efforts could be built. But for these efforts to be successful they need the support of the European Union and all its member states, both in form and in substance. I very much hope that the Commission will endorse the Decade and reinforce it.

I should like to take up President Barroso’s idea of a European Platform for Roma Inclusion. In my opinion, this could be a valuable extension of the Roma Decade and bring on board the member states that do not have a large enough Roma population to develop national action programmes on their own.

One of the main advantages of the Decade is that it brings together countries with large Roma populations, whether they are inside the European Union or outside. If the EU really wants to address the Roma problem on its roots it should take advantage of the existence of the Decade and build on it. Doing so the EU would really be true to its potential as an open society.

My foundations, the civil society organizations supported by my foundations, and I, personally, remain firmly committed to correcting one of the European Union’s most glaring deficiencies as an open society. I hope that the EU will, as President Barroso said, exercise political leadership to accomplish this goal. It will require far more than ten years to achieve our goals. But the Decade of Roma Inclusion has made a good start and it deserves the full support of the European Union and its leadership.

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