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Robbing the Roma

A year and a half has passed since the European Commission adopted the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020, which calls upon European Union governments to create comprehensive plans aimed at strengthening social inclusion and improving the well-being of their Roma citizens. The European Council endorsed the framework soon after. But, despite good intentions, little has changed.

In fact, the Roma’s suffering has increased as a result of the euro crisis, and intolerance has intensified, especially in the countries with the largest Roma populations—Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Greece. Despite the European Commission’s call for member states to apply more European Union (EU) funds to programs aimed at integrating Roma before the close of the 2007-2013 EU budget period, none of these six countries has done so. Some of them—such as Bulgaria and Romania—are among the most laggard spenders of EU funds, particularly resources from the European Social Fund.

For example, Romania has received €4.5 billion ($5.9 billion) from the European Social Fund. But the estimated 1.8 million Roma in the country—who struggle with pervasive unemployment, poor living conditions, low life expectancy, and low rates of school attendance—have benefited very little from these funds. Indeed, in the sixth year of the current seven-year budget cycle, less than 10 percent of the funds have been used, and only a fraction of that for Roma.

The little that was set aside for Roma is now in jeopardy, given that the EU has suspended its European Social Fund reimbursements to the Romanian government, owing to procedural shortcomings. As a result, the government is not reimbursing NGOs that are trying to implement programs aimed at helping Roma.

Circumstances are not much better elsewhere. The Bulgarian government is spending EU funds very slowly. And, in Hungary, spending slowed when the current government deemed the previous government’s programs deficient.

Adverse political incentives in Central and Eastern Europe are partly to blame for this situation. The prevailing view in these countries is that Roma prefer stealing and damaging others’ property to working; that they receive disproportionate and undeserved social benefits; and that they produce children in order to qualify for more public assistance.

Fearing short-term damage to their popularity, politicians—even those who understand the long-term implications of their failure to act—are wary of helping Roma. The problem is further exacerbated by a political culture in which public officials’ private interests trump genuine leadership. Indeed, the EU’s most corrupt member-state governments are those that need to do most for their Roma citizens.

In Hungary, the extreme-nationalist Jobbik party has been capitalizing on anti-Roma sentiment. Supported by roughly 15 percent of the population, the party had some success in the latest European Parliament elections, as well as in national and local polls. For example, last year, Jobbik’s candidate, Oszkar Juhasz, was elected Mayor of Gyongyospata, where a radical paramilitary organization had staged patrols for two weeks in protest against “Gypsy crime.” And, in October, Jobbik’s Erik Fülöp won his second consecutive mayoral election in Tiszavasvari, the party’s proclaimed “capital city.”

Likewise, last June in Baia Mare, Romania, the incumbent mayor Catalin Chereches won more than 85 percent of the vote on a promise to eliminate the town’s “pockets of poverty”—or, more accurately, to demolish Roma neighborhoods. The city had already captured the world’s attention when it erected a six-foot-high wall to isolate a particularly poor Roma community of roughly 2,000 people from its neighbors, effectively creating a ghetto.

Such actions reflect a dangerous trend toward physical exclusion. Under communism, significant efforts were made to assimilate Roma; they were given jobs, albeit at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and were assured housing. With post-communist restructuring, this modest status evaporated. Their diminished social status, combined with openly discriminatory hiring policies by private companies, resulted in the Roma’s rapid re-isolation.

To reverse this trend, Western European countries, too, must take responsibility. After all, it was France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2010 ordered the expulsion of illegal Roma and the demolition of their camps—triggering the human-rights response that stimulated the EU to strengthen its calls for investment in Roma integration.

The European Commission, despite its flaws, remains the Roma’s greatest institutional hope. Given the existing framework’s lack of impact, a stronger set of recommendations for member states is being discussed. EU-level action must become more systematic and consequential, so that the Commission can exert a greater influence on member states.

In particular, the traditional disbursement mechanisms for cohesion funds must be reassessed in countries where the state bureaucracy is unable to administer them effectively. Cutting the post-2013 EU budget, thus reducing the funds allocated for cohesion policy, is not the answer.

Furthermore, communication between EU bureaucrats and Roma NGO leaders must improve, so that they can work together to change social policies in EU countries that ignore or harm not only Roma, but all of their poor citizens. To this end, the Commission must improve oversight of the expenditure (and non-expenditure) of EU funds, and civil-society groups must learn how to lobby, rather than simply air grievances.

Isolation of and discrimination against Roma not only undermines European values; it threatens to unravel the social fabric in Europe’s new democracies. With support from civil society, the European Commission remains the agent of change that can and must lead EU members toward a future in which all citizens have the opportunity to improve their lives. The time has come for Europe to get serious about systematically solving the centuries-old problem of Roma exclusion.

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate

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