Skip to main content

What Lies Ahead for the EU Framework on Roma Integration?

When the European Council endorsed the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020 [pdf] on June 24, Commissioner Vivien Reding declared:

Today's agreement is a huge step forward for millions of Roma around Europe. The EU is sending a strong signal: the exclusion of the Roma is not compatible with our societal values and our economic model.

A giant step for EU officials maybe, but a giant step for mankind, a huge step forward for millions of Roma? There is much to be done to live up to the hyperbole, because the challenge facing the European Framework is stark. For how do we define “societal values” in the face of the electoral successes of hate-mongering, far-right political parties across Europe, and the increasingly strident—if incoherent—denunciations of multiculturalism emanating from the mainstream right?

And what’s inclusive about “our economic model” in a Union where so many of the constituent member states remain in thrall to the orthodoxies of neoliberalism?  There is a very real prospect that the Europe of 2020 could comprise increasingly closed societies and illiberal democracies where inequality and poverty thrive unabated, and Roma and other visible minorities continue to be denigrated and humiliated as scapegoats and pariahs.

However the Framework hints at another possibility: a viable prospect of forward-looking and fully inclusive societies that foster a sense of common belonging, cohesion, and mutual respect among all citizens regardless of their ethnicity. For this reason, and whatever the caveats, the Framework is to be welcomed by all who are committed to deepening democracy.

The anti-Roma riots and conflagrations across Bulgaria serve as a grim reminder that across Europe, anti-Gypsyism is so deeply ingrained—prejudice and intolerance towards Roma is so pervasive—that national integration strategies cannot succeed without resolute and unequivocal action to combat racism and discrimination. Put simply, prejudice unchecked will derail progress. On March 8, a resolution of the European Parliament called on the European Commission to link social inclusion priorities to a clear set of objectives that included protection of citizens against discrimination in all fields of life; promotion of social dialogue between Roma and non-Roma to combat racism and xenophobia; and for the Commission, as guardian of the treaties, to ensure full implementation of relevant legislation and appropriate sanctions against racially motivated crimes.

The Commission is entirely correct in its insistence that the primary responsibility for safeguarding the rights, well-being, and security of citizens lies with national governments. However, if the Framework is to live up to its billing as “10 years to make a difference,” then the Commission must do everything within its remit and competences to take up the Council’s invitation and signal to member states and candidate countries that nothing less than a zero-tolerance approach will suffice when it comes to anti-Gypsyism and all forms of discrimination against Roma.

The Framework priorities are identical to those of the Roma Decade, in that EU member states are urged to set targets, allocate adequate funding, define concrete action plans, and develop monitoring systems to measure progress.

The family resemblances between the Decade and the Framework are such that there are valuable lessons to be learned that can save a lot of time. Five years into the Framework we don’t want to be talking about the implementation gaps, the lack of realistic targets in the priority areas, inadequate budgets, or the lack of coordination across line ministries with regards to the National Roma Integration Strategies. Five years into the Framework we don’t want to be sitting in conferences and workshops bemoaning the lack of reliable disaggregated data, or pondering what to do about the bottlenecks and obstacles to making the most of EU funds for Roma inclusion. Five years into the Framework we don’t want to be facing a situation where the living conditions of millions of Roma living in acute deprivation has actually worsened, and anti-Roma prejudice is still gaining ground. Because as we lurch into the second half of the Decade, that’s where we are right now.

This is not to downplay the Decade’s achievements which have provided working templates of what needs to be done to achieve integration, equity, social cohesion, and combat discrimination and prejudice. At the last International Steering Committee Meeting in Prague, at the close of the Czech Presidency, Decade governments fully endorsed the EU Framework and pledged to bring all the convening power, experience, and knowledge gained since the launch of the Decade, to ensure that the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies meets its primary stated objective: to put an end to the exclusion of Roma.

There is a wealth of experience and good practice that has been generated since the launch of the Decade that needs to be harnessed to best effect and scaled up. Between now and 2020, one definite lesson learned is that there is a need for the Commission to put in place a coordinating mechanism proportionate to the tasks that lie ahead; a coordinating mechanism that can sustain the necessary momentum to ensure that this EU Framework will, to use the Commission’s catchphrase, “make a difference by 2020.”

The danger is that we could witness a familiar pattern of diminishing political will, resulting in weak and uneven implementation, with hopes for a better future for Roma once again raised and then duly dashed. And this would posit a real danger for the future, because the present situation is simply unsustainable.

It is a matter of regret to note that soon after the Prague meeting, and the Decade pledge to support the Framework, the Czech government was the first to decline the Commission’s request to submit a national Roma integration strategy. The government stated that it:

has a well-developed national coordination mechanism relating to the Romany agency. It is neither desirable nor useful to create new tasks for ministries, especially at the time of budget austerity.

Quite apart from the almost weekly incidents of violent extremist mobs descending upon Roma settlements, there is much to indicate that the “well-developed” mechanism for Roma integration has broken down.

The resignation in May of more than 50 education experts tasked with designing a plan for inclusive education, and the ongoing protests from political parties and civil society groups concerning the role of Ladislav Bátora within the Education Ministry, suggests that there is neither consensus nor progress on the key priority of equal access to quality education for Roma.

In a damning public letter announcing their resignation, the 50 experts stated that the stalling of reforms means that “the Czech Republic is violating its obligations flowing from international treaties and from the European Court for Human Rights judgment,” and that “‘inclusive education’ now amounts to nothing more than mere rhetoric intended to calm the international community.” The sociologist Ivan Gabal stated that “we currently have 16,000 Roma pupils in the ‘special schools,’ and last year less than 50 of them managed to return to mainstream schools—in other words a miniscule number. This shows that the current state of affairs is not in order.”

The Czech Republic is in something of a crisis, anti-Roma hate speech by politicians is ever more common, hate crime is on the rise, the neo-Nazis are on the march. And to cap it all, in a time of austerity, there is the real danger, according to the former Prime Minister Ji?í Paroubek, that hundreds of billions of crowns from the EU financing prospects for 2007–2013 that could go for regional development “won't even be touched.”

It is to be hoped that the Czech opt-out is an aberration and that EU member states with significant Roma populations will follow the example set by the Hungarian government and meet the submission deadline. The strategy outlined by the Hungarian government is rich in analytical detail and ambitious in scope. This strategy lays down a sound basis for discussion, consultation, and participation. It is to be hoped that the enthusiasm and commitment shown by State-Secretary Balogh, will be shared across key line ministries, especially the ministry of education.

“Nothing about us without us” was the catch-call at the launch of the Decade, with the assertion that Roma participation “will make or break” the Decade. The reality is that the lack of substantive Roma participation is at the heart of the shortcomings of the Decade so far.

The time has passed when Roma can simply be viewed as an undifferentiated, passive, and dependent population. The Commission has a vital role to play to promote substantive Roma participation in this process and to strongly encourage member states to embrace the idea that active citizenship is fundamental to social inclusion, and include all of the citizenry regardless of their ethnicity. Roma communities and representatives must be accorded the opportunity for participation in shaping the policies and initiatives that directly impact their lives.

From the side of the municipalities, partnerships with community-based civil society organizations are vital to close the evergreen implementation gap. Civil society organizations have garnered much by way of sound practice and lessons learned. From the side of the NGOs, to transform project-based knowledge into sustainable change, partnerships with municipalities are essential. 

There has been little evidence to date of coherent, complex, and comprehensive policy interventions to simultaneously combat poverty; provide access to health services and quality education; and resolve housing and infrastructure issues. Such approaches require the ingredients of political will, partnership, resolve, know-how, and knowledge. It is to be hoped that the Framework can provide the necessary glue to hold these ingredients together.

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world