Has the EU dropped Roma inclusion from ‘credible enlargement’ in the Western Balkans?

By Bernard Rorke 

So, what’s goin’ on with Roma inclusion in the Western Balkans? And why has the issue been all but dropped from discussions about EU enlargement? The most recent statements from the European Commission have been upbeat about a bigger EU by 2025, praising progress, and calling ‘credible enlargement’ the key driver of transformation.

But, amidst the abundance of good cheer, there has been barely a whisper from the Commission concerning the fate of one million Roma living in the region. You have to scour the documents to find more than the odd one-liner about “more efforts needed on Roma inclusion”.

Silences and omissions

This silence is all the more curious when you consider the Commission funded the latest UNDP Regional Roma Survey. This is the first major collection of data on Roma in the Western Balkans published on May 8. The survey revealed that despite some modest progress, there is a growing gap between Roma and non-Rom in health, employment and housing.

The report  states that in all accession countries, “marginalized Roma face limited access to opportunities in virtually every aspect of human development such as basic rights, health, education, housing, employment and standard of living.”

When asked by the Brussels Times,  the European Commission declined to comment on the findings in the survey and adequacy of EU funding to integrate Roma in the Western Balkans countries. Are we to read anything ominous into this silence, coming as it does with recent omissions and lip service mentions on Roma rights in recent statements on the Western Balkans?

EU 2017: ‘Strengthened Approach’ and ‘Fundamentals First’

Last year, the Commission announced a “strengthened approach” to its assessments in future annual reports, to allow for greater transparency and greater scrutiny of reforms and progress. There was some fleeting hope that this plugging of the holes might include some scrutiny and transparency on Roma inclusion measures. 

Likewise, the statement that enlargement policy in 2017 remained focused on the "fundamentals first" principle, which include the rule of law and fundamental rights, with specific mention of the “need to better protect minorities, in particular Roma”, gave some cause for hope that the Copenhagen Criteria might actually matter. 

At the time, the ERRC expressed concerns that EC enlargement  reports have been perfunctory at best when it came to Roma inclusion; that the format did not allow for in-depth analysis, nor any meaningful tracking or assessment of progress from one year to the next. As for ‘fundamentals first’, the ERRC stated that:

It remained unclear how the Commission’s “new approach” will actually take reporting on Roma inclusion beyond generic observations that  “Roma in the Western Balkans and in Turkey continue to be the victims of racism, discrimination and social exclusion and most Roma live in deep poverty, lacking sufficient access to healthcare, education and training, housing and employment.”

EU 2018: “A credible enlargement perspective”

Come 2018, it seems that as far as enlargement goes Roma inclusion has been effectively shelved as a priority for progress. In the European Commission’s February 2018 communication on “a credible enlargement perspective”, the tone was one of upbeat reaffirmations of unequivocal support, and enthusiastic welcomes of progress made, and the possibility that the EU will be bigger by 2025. 

A credible enlargement perspective was described as the key driver of transformation in the region”, and the Commission announced an “Action Plan in Support of the Transformation of the Western Balkans” with six Flagship Initiatives in tow.1 All heady stuff, but on Roma inclusion, there was just one meager pro-forma mention:

Decisive efforts are needed to protect minorities and fight discrimination, notably against the Roma - for whom social inclusion should be more robustly promoted - and the LGBTI community. 

Perfunctory or what? Even less mention of Roma

The individual country reports yielded precious little apart from the following perfunctory mentions:

Albania: Living conditions for Roma and Egyptians need to be improved.
BiH: A more comprehensive and integrated approach towards the Roma population is required to foster their social inclusion.
Macedonia: More efforts are needed as regards Roma inclusion
Montenegro: The Roma minority remains the most vulnerable and most discriminated community
Serbia: Further sustained efforts are needed to improve the situation of persons belonging to the most discriminated groups (Roma, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, persons with disabilities, persons with HIV/AIDS and other socially vulnerable groups).

In its April 17 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, the Commission made one brief mention that the “precarious situation’ of the Roma needs to be prioritised “as they continue to face social exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination.” But what kind of priority, when there was not a single prompt from the Commission on what needs to be done about Roma inclusion in the Conclusions and Recommendations? 

Losing leverage? Time for DG NEAR to rewind and reset priorities  

The period of accession negotiations is the time when the Commission can exert most leverage on ‘aspirant’ member states to sort their shit out when it comes to combating discrimination, and safeguarding the rights of minorities. As the lesson of Hungary makes clear, once a country becomes a member state, and the ruling party ensconces itself within the European People’s Party, it can strip a democracy of its liberal content and discriminate without demur or effective sanction from Brussels. 

Now is the time for DG NEAR to rewind and reset Roma inclusion as a priority. If its fails to insist that Copenhagen Criteria count for Roma in the Western Balkans during these negotiations, will the Commission be surprised when local governing elites with checkered political histories, and a somewhat instrumental view of democracy, simply follow suit and shelve Roma inclusion for another decade? 

Just askin’ – because the marginalized, the excluded, and the impoverished men women and children among the one million Roma living in the Western Balkans deserve better from that “key driver of transformation’ they call credible enlargement.

Endnote:

  1. (1) To strengthen the rule of law; (2) to reinforce engagement on security and migration; (3) to enhance support for socio-economic development; (4) to increase transport and energy connectivity; and (5) a Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans; and (6) to support reconciliation and good neighbourly relations.

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