Roma: Europe’s Silent Minority

by Natalie Bowlus

Anti-immigration and anti-Muslim vitriol pervades the European press. This focus obscures the fact that the largest and most disenfranchised minority on the continent is native to Europe: the Roma.

Known as Europe’s “gypsies,” there are between 10 and 16 million Roma currently living in the EU. Most reside in Eastern countries that joined the Union in 2004 and 2007. The Roma are plagued by lower educational achievement, higher unemployment and higher birth rates than their co-nationals. Roma children tend to cluster in segregated schools and sometimes are even sequestered in schools for the mentally handicapped, leaving them without the skills necessary to enter the workforce.

Widespread discrimination against the Roma can be public and overt: in 2010, for example, the French government suddenly deported hundreds of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma. Paris received little more than a slap on the wrist from the European Commission for this extra-legal action. On the one hand, as European citizens, the Roma are entitled to freedom of movement; on the other, the French claimed they were not making substantive progress toward finding work and integrating into French society. Rather than work toward reconciling these competing imperatives, the European Commission backed down and avoided conflict.

The Roma are also lightning rods for hate crimes and fanaticism. In Hungary, for example, supporters of the far-right party Jobbik claim that one of the government’s major failures is its inability to combat “gypsy crime.” Vigilante groups seeking to remedy the situation sprung up in several parts of the country. One of the most extreme incidents took place in the village of Gyögyöspata last March when the vigilante group Vedero infiltrated the town, harassed Roma residents and started an armed brawl. Subsequently, more than 100 Roma moved out. Although such armed militant groups were banned last April, police harassment, employment discrimination and the subtler, everyday racism that permeates society remain features of daily life.

So far, the European Union has failed to take the lead on the issue of Roma integration, leaving the task instead to national governments. Formulating a plan to integrate the Roma was one condition for Romania and Bulgaria’s EU accession, but the EU has no plan to assist with the actual implementation. Not surprisingly, little progress has been made.

There was an undeniable glimmer of hope when the Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched in 2005, spearheaded by twelve countries with large Roma populations. Although the initiative itself is laudable and represents a government-level acknowledgement of the need to bring Roma into society, seven years later there has yet to be any monitoring and evaluation of programs. At best, the Decade is an opportunity for a lot of talk and no action; at worst, it represents yet another sinkhole for EU development money to be sucked into opportunistic politicians’ pockets.

The exclusion of Roma from European society is a pan-European problem. The leadership behind solving it must come from the European Union for several reasons. First, as European citizens and passport holders, the Roma must be allowed to move freely from country to country. Roma who do not feel tied to local communities in the East are able to move to Western Europe in the hope of finding better jobs or more generous welfare states. Integration of these migrating populations is necessary in order to prevent situations like the mass French deportation two years ago.

Second, the Roma represent the largest and fastest-growing minority group in Europe. By failing to integrate them into local economies, governments are missing out on thousands of Euros of revenue. Especially in times of crisis, Europe cannot afford a systemically disenfranchised population that will be a drag on the economy.

Third, the countries with the largest Roma populations are also among Europe’s poorest. By leaving integration to national governments, the EU is saddling countries that have little spare cash and less political will with an additional burden. As a result, pro-Roma initiatives take a back seat to more pressing concerns, enabling related funds to continue to be ill spent.

Finally, continuing discrimination against the Roma systemically undermines the European project of inclusion and equality for all its citizens. If the European Union cannot lead the way in improving the quality of life for one of its most disenfranchised minorities, then it reveals itself as hollow at the core. For the sake of its own integrity, and for the future of European cooperation, it is therefore imperative that in the coming years the European Union makes Roma integration a priority.

About the Author

Natalie Bowlus is a second year MALD student at The Fletcher School where she focuses on Security Studies and Political Economy. Prior to Fletcher, Natalie spent three years in Hungary studying, teaching, and working in the private sector.

Armenian Parliamentary Elections 2012: The Fletcher Connection

Missing the Point: Contextualizing the Results of Israel’s Kadima Primary