Does the Race Equality Directive apply to Italy or not?

27 February 2017

By Bernard Rorke

Despite the Roma-only camps, the Roma-only emergency shelters, despite all the evictions and all the discrimination faced by Roma, Italy remains unpunished for its transgressions. To date, no action has been taken by the European Commission to signal its discontent with the undeclared apartheid that persists in this large and powerful EU member state. 

To its credit, the current European Commission has launched three infringement proceedings for school segregation of Romani pupils against Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. These three countries have proven themselves to be persistent offenders, breaching the Race Equality Directive (RED) by directly and indirectly discriminating against Romani pupils “based on racial or ethnic origin” in terms of unequal access to education. It’s time now to move up a gear and challenge anti-Gypsyism inside the “Big Three”.

Breaching the RED

The RED covers “access to and supply of goods and services which are available to the public, including housing”; and harassment is deemed to be discrimination when an “unwanted conduct related to racial or ethnic origin takes place with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” The evidence continues to pile up over the years - it is clear that Roma in Italy have faced much by way of harassment in housing, and repeated forced evictions and relocations have effectively banished them to environments that are degrading and humiliating. 

Since 1997 the ERRC has monitored human rights abuses, litigated, produced reports, sent letters of concern to the Prime Minister and Italian Parliament, and prepared submissions for the UN. The ERRC repeatedly drew attention to the perils of deliberate exclusion, and provided clear recommendations and very prescient warnings about what needed to be done to avert a humanitarian crisis. The elected leaders of the Second Republic chose neither to heed the warnings, nor adopt the recommendations. Worse still in 2008, the Berlusconi government declared a State of Emergency to combat the so-called ‘Roma menace’.

The European Commission and fingerprinting Romani children

When the Lega Nord interior minister Roberto Maroni announced plans to fingerprint Romani children in June 2008, the move was widely condemned. Centrist opposition leader, Pier Ferdinando Casini, called the move “racist”. Another senior opposition politician and former family minister Rosy Bindi, described Maroni’s plan as an unacceptable discriminatory "ethnic headcount" that presupposed all Roma minors were “hardened criminals”. Recalling Italy's fascist past, and the 1938 legal census of all foreign-born Jews which prepared the ground for the racial laws, Amos Luzzato told La Repubblica: "I remember as a child being stamped and tagged as a Jew … Italy is a country that has lost its memory." A view shared by Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis, who condemned Maroni’s action: “This proposal invites historical analogies which are so obvious that they do not even have to be spelled out.”

Despite all of this and scarcely two months later, the euobserver reported “EU gives blessing for Italy's Roma fingerprint scheme.” A commission spokesman told journalists that the practice proposed by Italian authorities earlier this year is only aimed at identifying persons "who cannot be identified in any other way" and excludes the collection of "data relating to ethnic origin or the religion of people." Maroni welcomed the verdict as “highly satisfying”.

The distinct oddness of the Commission’s position was highlighted by the Hungarian Roma liberal MEP Viktoria Mohacsi: "I find it most strange that, contrary to the commission statement claiming compliance with the EU law, the fingerprinting procedure seemed to be applied exclusively to Roma, which I cannot interpret otherwise than a discriminatory treatment targeting one specific ethnic group."

Many others found it “most strange”, but perhaps the Commission’s compliance was not so strange given Berlusconi’s not so veiled threats and outright dismissal of any EU “meddling” in Italian affairs. Something he made clear a short time later, when he threatened to suspend Italy’s vote and block the functioning of the European Council “unless it is determined that no commissioner and no spokesperson for the commission can intervene publicly any more on any issue."

The end of the “Nomad Emergency”

The so-called “Nomad Emergency” with its demonisation of Romani people in what was overtly racist and populist get-tough approach went unchallenged by the EU. The State of Emergency heralded a prolonged period of harassment, expulsions, mob violence and pogroms against Roma communities. It served only to exacerbate communal tensions, legitimise human rights abuses, and seriously damage prospects for social inclusion.

The European Roma Rights Centre challenged the State of Emergency decree before the Italian courts, and on 4 November 2011, the Council of State ruled that the emergency decree was unfounded, unmotivated and unlawful. In May 2013, Italy’s Cassation Court rejected the government’s appeal and upheld this ruling.

Roma exclusion after Berlusconi: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

In December 2016, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), called on the Italian authorities to halt all further evictions of Roma, and to scotch any plans to establish new segregated camps. These conclusions came on top of evidence of discrimination provided in submissions from the ERRC, Amnesty International and partner organisations in Italy, and followed “expressions of concern” from Strasbourg bodies at the increase in xenophobia and anti-Gypsyism.  The widespread and commonplace use of intolerant and racist language in political discourse and media outlets provided sobering reminders that years later, Roma are still suffering the consequences of Berlusconi’s illegal “Nomad Emergency”.

Thousands of Roma families still live in ethnically segregated camps across Italy, often in remote areas far away from basic services. Many of the sites are unfit for human habitation, adjacent to waste dumps, toxic landfills and airport runways. And amidst the squalor, old and young alike live under constant threat of repeat evictions.

The government has failed to honour its commitment in the national Roma integration strategy to reduce the “system of camps”. Italian authorities continue to approve the construction of new segregated Roma-only camps and shelters, subsidized with money drawn from EU and national funds. As the ERRC submission noted “The authorities seem to have ample resources to build and maintain segregated facilities, but never to dismantle them.”

The sounds of silence from Brussels

The evidence points to an unavoidable conclusion: in a climate of anti-Roma discrimination that is systemic and deliberate, Roma are undisputedly denied access to public services by public authorities. Roma face extreme harassment that violates personal dignity and the conditions in segregated camps and emergency shelters constitute what the RED describes as “an intimidating, hostile, and degrading environment.”

Frans Timmermans recently spoke of the need “to put our values into action” with regards to migration and integration at a time when European societies are marked by a sense of crisis. He stated that “Values cannot be imposed, they must be passed on and embraced across generations and communities, and we need to find concrete ways to achieve this.”

While we wait for the embrace of values to take effect across generations, Roma and other minorities bear the brunt of racism and discrimination on a daily basis. Justice must not be made to wait any longer, and Member States can be imposed upon to meet their commitments on anti-discrimination and respect for fundamental human rights - even large and powerful Member States like Italy.

All the evidence suggests that is now incumbent upon the European Commission to initiate infringement proceedings against the Italian government for persistent breaches of the Race Equality Directive. It is time to say Basta Italia! But does the European Commission have the political will to go there?

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