Two decades ago, my Open Society Foundations helped usher democracy into Eastern Europe. We continue our work in Europe because democracies of course are far from immune to problems. And the problems are especially acute for 12 million of Europe’s inhabitants, the Roma. Widespread discrimination, high unemployment, segregated schools, hate crimes, and inadequate health care are all hallmarks of life for the Roma—not the kind of life you would expect in Europe today.
The waves of expulsions of Roma men, women, and children from France catapulted the issue into the headlines, but much more than media attention is needed. When I last wrote on this topic, many commenters asked where were the voice of the Roma people in the debate. Zeljko Jovanovic, director of Roma Initiatives at my foundation, has written about this issue and together we are working to address it.
Part of tackling the problem is to highlight the role that European institutions should play. In 2005, nine European countries—some EU members and some not—the World Bank, and my foundations launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion. The Decade is not perfect, but it represents the most developed mechanism for intergovernmental dialogue on Roma policy. And after France’s actions this summer, and with the Roma still being expelled today, it is clear that what we need most is effective cross-border work on Roma issues in order to prevent discrimination, poverty, and migration. We must make certain that when a Decade member enters the EU, its government remains engaged in the Decade. To date this has not always been the case because frankly the Decade is low priority for the EU.
Yet despite calls from many policy corners—including my own foundations—EU structural funds still cannot be used to support Decade goals.
This has made the Decade nearly irrelevant, plagued by problems such as unrealistic timetables, lack of coordination and poor budgeting. With the appropriate changes in the EU’s political and financial commitment, however the EU can still make full use of the Decade. Structural funds should be used by member states to implement Decade goals and the EU should adjust the funds to allow for support of national action plans.
Much has changed since my foundations began working to improve the lives of Roma. But we have yet to see real change in many Roma communities in Europe. We are supporting the Roma community to get organized, raise their voice, and garner international support. I have met some of the representatives of these groups and I believe they will help the Decade bring the promise of Europe to all its inhabitants.