What Can the EU Do for Roma in the Face of Rising Populism and Prejudice?

It’s nearly two years since the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS) was launched during the Hungarian EU Presidency. Back then, Commissioner Viviane Reding described it as a “huge step forward for millions of Roma around Europe.” When the Commission reviewed the strategies submitted by Member States in May 2012, the rhetoric was more muted. The best the Commission could say was that the strategies amounted to a “first step.” One year on, in a climate of deepening poverty and rising intolerance, there is a grave danger that the prospects of the Framework making a difference to Roma people’s lives will simply dissolve. The newly published policy brief Beyond First Steps provides a concise overview and analysis of developments to date, as well as a clear set of recommendations for the European Commission to keep the Framework on track.

Taking stock of his government’s EU Presidency in June 2011, Hungarian Minister of State Zoltán Balog declared that the integration of Roma, “who are exposed to deep poverty, unemployment, discrimination and segregation everywhere”, would contribute hugely to competitiveness, economic growth and social cohesion. The minister agreed with MEPs on the importance of a non-discriminatory approach. 

Back then, it was hard to reconcile Balog’s position with his government’s response to a 2011 U.S. Department of State report stating that in Hungary, “discrimination against Roma exacerbated their already limited access to education, employment, health care, and social services.” Hungary’s state secretary for government communications, Zoltan Kovacs, flatly rejected the criticism: “Our view is that there is no discrimination against the Roma in Hungary.”

It’s now even harder to reconcile the government’s commitments to National Roma Integration Strategies, with reality. In January 2013, the journalist Zsolt Bayer sparked an uproar when he wrote that “a significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence… They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals… These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved—immediately and regardless of the method.”

Bayer is one of the main organizers of the pro-government Peace Marches, a founder member of Fidesz, and a long-time confidante of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Viviane Reding promptly condemned the remarks as unacceptable: “The European Union has no room for racism, hate speech or any other forms of intolerance.”

It seems, however, that in this corner of the European Union, there is room for hate speech. The response from Fidesz spokeswoman Gabriella Selmeczi was that Bayer wrote this article “not as a politician, but as a journalist,” adding that “we don’t qualify the opinions of journalists.” Despite the fact that nobody was killed in the incident, Selmeczi went on to accuse left-wing and liberal opposition parties of “encouraging criminals by blaming not the killers but those who are outraged [by their crimes].”

Paying tribute to Bayer at his 50th birthday celebration, Speaker of Parliament László Kövér was even more forthright: “Good and bad, hard times and joy, we experienced it together. We never once denied each other and we never will.”

The response of the government was similar in the wake of protests last year by university teachers, students, and researchers who found remarks by Geza Jeszenszky, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, to be offensive against Roma.

In a textbook used at Budapest’s Corvinus University (BCE), Jeszenszky suggested that “the reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that Jeszenszky cannot be accused of prejudice for his words, “which he wrote as a university professor and not as ambassador.”

It’s hard to reconcile the fine sentiments contained in the government’s Roma integration strategy, with its equivocation in the face of statements that disparage, dehumanize, and degrade Roma. If this is what counts as elite opinion in government circles, it’s little wonder that anti-Roma prejudice is so widespread and so strident among the citizenry in Hungary.

And it’s therefore no surprise that far-right Jobbik MPs feel even less inhibited by parliamentary mores in their conduct. Only recently, after a late-night sitting in parliament, Ágnes Osztolykán, the only Romani woman in the current parliament, reported that Jobbik MP György Gyula Zagyva abused her, stating that he “wouldn’t mind fucking her even though she was a Gypsy.”

In neighbouring Slovakia, what is one to make of Prime Minister Robert Fico’s commitment to his National Roma Integration Strategy in light of recent comments? Just a couple of weeks ago he proposed placing Roma children in boarding schools“When we see that a Romani family is incapable of providing the kind of education, the kind of quality upbringing, that guarantees their child a future, then someone else has to do it.”

Fico told his audience of college students of the need for special facilities: “You must remove the children from that environment and put them somewhere else.” In the face of what he described as the inevitable “sanctimonious” protests from human rights activists at home and abroad, he stated that “we either tell everyone that the situation in Slovakia is extreme and that extreme measures must be adopted for extreme situations, or we will just keep gabbling away about it.”

Fico followed this with a decidedly odd rant against what he termed “minority rights extortion” by holders of minority opinions, ethnic minorities, the Roma, and people of a different orientation: “This must change. We did not establish our independent state to give preferential treatment to minorities, however much we appreciate them, but to privilege the Slovak nation-state in particular. It holds here that the state is a national one and our society is a civic one. It is a curious situation when minority problems are being intentionally foregrounded everywhere to the detriment of the Slovak nation-state. It’s as if there are no Slovak men and women living in Slovakia.”

Nor does it seem that there is much sign of progress on Roma integration in the Czech Republic, according to Nils Muižnieks, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. In his latest report he is deeply critical of the overt anti-Gypsyism he encountered, the rise in violent crimes against Roma, the institutionalized discrimination, and persistent segregation in schooling and housing. He stated that the implementation of strategies promoting inclusion was hampered by structural deficiencies and an insufficient allocation of resources. Commissioner Muižnieks called on the authorities to establish concrete goals and a clear timetable for reducing territorial segregation and improving the availability and quality of social housing for those in need.

In the year that has passed since the submission of the NRIS, there has been no respite in anti-Roma prejudice, and little sign of tangible progress. As the policy brief Beyond First Steps asserts, there is a danger that if left to their own devices, Member States will simply not deliver on Roma integration. In order for the Framework to make a difference, the Commission will have to become more interventionist. It will need to drive and coordinate the Framework, take a lead in building the capacity of Roma civil society, and be pro-active to ensure structured participation of local authorities and communities in the design, implementation, and robust monitoring of all Framework policy interventions between now and 2020.

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There must be a way of bringing Zsolt Bayer to court to answer for his racist outpourings.
Perhaps the twitterati could get a case against him publicised through the social media.

I understand that the Hungarian media regulator has fined Magyar Hirlap that published Bayer's article and ordered it to publish the wording of its decision in both print and online versions. But what really worries me is how the Roma are caught between rising nativism in many EU member states (subject to forced deportations, for instance) and the rise of fascist parties, particularly in countries like Hungary. It seems to me that, despite all these EU programmes, the member states are all contributing to the Roma's increased vulnerability and victimisation. What can we do to challenge this kind of schitzophrenic policy-making?

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