Half time for the EU Roma Framework: Is the Commission serious about Roma inclusion in the Western Balkans?

14 June 2017

By Bernard Rorke

The European Commission wants to know how things are going with Roma inclusion in the Western Balkans at the mid-point of the EU Roma Framework. Well they could ask Ivan and Elena for their impressions following their 13-hour detention by Serbian police

According to their statement to the ERRC, on the 21 April, Ivan was made to kneel in a room surrounded by eight officers, who slapped his face repeatedly and told him to confess to car theft and insurance fraud. They racially abused him and kicked him in the stomach. When he still did not confess, an officer began whipping his outstretched hands with a leather whip. One officer put a plastic bag over his head, partially suffocating him. The same policeman also told him if he did not confess they would electrocute him. Another cocked his gun, pointed it at him, and told him he would shoot him in the hand to give him “a memory that would stay with him for a lifetime”.

While Ivan was being interrogated, his wife Elena, an Austrian citizen, was in a nearby room with the door open so she could hear some of what was happening. They harassed and verbally abused her while drinking heavily. She was not allowed to use the toilet at all at first, and then only when accompanied by a male officer.

Police denied the couple access to a lawyer and threatened to take their children away from them. Eventually, after they signed documents they could not understand, they were released and the husband sought medical treatment. What is especially sobering was the comment by a local observer, who described this kind of treatment as “unremarkable and almost routine.” Such routine cruelty cannot be reconciled with the platitudes and guff that adorn the various governments’ paper strategies for Roma inclusion.

In its recent submission to the European Commission on the situation of Roma in the western Balkans, the ERRC provided evidence of continuing and deep discrimination, including forced evictions, residential and school segregation; police violence and ethnic profiling; grave disparities in health care provision and a widespread lack of access to clean water and sanitation for Roma communities. But in a time of mounting political crises, is anybody listening, and who cares about EU enlargement?

Enlargement fatigue

For many years, the Commission’s assessment was that the prospect of EU membership, as continuously reaffirmed by all Member States, drove “transformation and anchored stability and security in the countries of Southeast Europe.” Consequently, the reasoning is that “a credible enlargement process, based on strict and fair conditionality, remains an irreplaceable tool to strengthen these countries and to help support their modernisation through political and economic reforms, in line with the accession criteria.”

However, the mounting political crises in the Western Balkans have prompted many observers to hold the European Union partly to blame for its failure to exert any meaningful influence in the region.

Enlargement fatigue is now evident among member states, which are unenthusiastic about the prospect of new members joining an already very strained European Union. And the signals from Brussels have convinced many that the enlargement process has been effectively frozen from the centre.

Observers attribute this fatigue on the one hand to the sluggish progress with reforms in the candidate countries, endemic corruption and democratic backsliding; and on the other, to current preoccupations with more urgent crises which have diverted attention from the Western Balkans.

Potential membership has long been the only real political leverage the EU has in the Western Balkans. The political inertia, which has effectively “shelved” enlargement, diminishes the EU’s credibility in the region and engenders wide disillusionment with the very “idea of Europe”. The deepening of political tensions is such that the stability of the region ceases to be a given. This is deeply concerning, for political polarization, combined with weak governance and endemic corruption does not augur well for progress on Roma inclusion.

Fundamentals first?

In 2016 the Commission affirmed the “fundamentals first” principle, which includes the rule of law and fundamental rights, with specific mention of the “need to better protect minorities, in particular Roma.” It also announced a “strengthened approach” to its assessments in future annual progress reports, to allow for greater transparency and greater scrutiny of reforms.

As far as Roma inclusion is concerned, the reports to date have been perfunctory at best; the format has not allowed for in-depth analysis, nor any meaningful tracking or assessment of progress from one year to the next.

In 2017, it still remains unclear how the Commission’s “new approach” will actually take reporting on Roma inclusion beyond generic observations that “Roma continue to be the victims of racism, discrimination and social exclusion and most Roma live in deep poverty….”

At this mid-point of the EU Framework, there is a need for much more effort by the Commission to fully integrate “the enlargement component” of the Framework. The governments of accession countries need to put in place “robust monitoring mechanisms” that align with the EU Framework, and their annual reporting schedule should coincide with that of the Member States. This would allow for greater transparency and meaningful comparability between Member States and aspirant countries.

Anti-racism for slow learners

Such an alignment, with a revived emphasis on combating discrimination and racism, would also send a clear signal that Roma inclusion remains a priority for the European Commission in its “fundamentals first” policy approach to further enlargement in the Western Balkans.

One important lesson for slow learners among governing elites from the Framework so far, is that an emphasis on development, partnerships, social inclusion and societal cohesion cannot paper over the cracks when it came to racism and discrimination. There can be no progress on Roma inclusion unless direct and indirect forms of discrimination are tackled head on.

As far as the case of Ivan and Elena is concerned, it is clear that the issue of police violence and police racism is way down the list of priorities at the mid-point of the EU Roma Framework. Urgent steps are needed to provide Roma with access to justice, and to hold police forces accountable for their actions. Europe needs to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Roma lives actually matter, up to and beyond 2020.

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