Zero tolerance: New EU communication talks tough on anti-Gypsyism

23 June 2015

By Bernard Rorke

In its latest June 17th communication on the EU Roma Framework, the European Commission, pulled no punches when it came to the rise of anti-Gypsyism, hate speech and hate crime, and the failure of politicians to publicly condemn such incidents in many Member States, “especially those with the largest Roma communities.”

As if to graphically illustrate the pertinence of the Commission’s concerns, that very same week Bulgaria witnessed three nights of violent disturbances in the Orlandovtsi area of Sofia and in the town of Garmen, where injuries and arrests followed attempts by Bulgarian far-right mobs to storm Roma neighbourhoods and attack residents. But the biggest problem is not racist violence, but rather “that an entire Roma generation, or probably two generations, are totally out of control,” according to one well-known Bulgarian media pundit, Professor Mihail Konstantinov. He opined that these were illiterate men and women aged between 25 and 35 who are unfit to survive in the modern world, and he went on to explain his pessimism about the United States where “there is a growing number of young black men and women who are illiterate, use drugs and are asocial.” The professor’s opinions don’t seem to have excited widespread condemnation. And beyond Bulgaria, across Europe a quick scan of Roma-related news items over recent months yields a dispiriting catalogue: reports of police violence and justice denied; accounts of forced evictions and the toll they take on young and old; public prejudice, hate speech and yet still more evidence that racial segregation in EU Member States is a habit that too many white people just can’t kick.

On the bright side, the Communication states that some progress has been made towards reversing the trend of further deterioration in living standards of Roma communities hit by the economic crisis. So things are not actually getting better, but the necessary structures to stop them getting even worse ‘have been set up’.

From the side of the European Commission over €80 billion have been allocated to investment in human capital in the fields of employment, education, and social inclusion, including access to health care and health promotion via the European Social Fund (ESF). A specific investment priority for the integration of marginalized communities has been established to allow for explicit but not exclusive targeting, and a new conditionality has been set to ensure that Member States spending EU money do so to good effect. So, in short, the good news is that the amount of EU funding will not be a constraint, but as the Commission notes, the effective use of funds to improve education, employment, health and housing “remains a challenge.”

Regarding civil society involvement, the Commission finds some solace in the fact that there are clearly more Roma civil organizations aware of the national strategies and local action plans than before.  But, as the Commission says this is just not enough, for legitimate Roma representation and the broad and transparent involvement of civil society are still profoundly lacking in most Member States, and it is ‘especially urgent’ to strengthen the capacity of Roma NGOs and ensure their transparent involvement in local-level implementation and monitoring.

The Commission dutifully charts the modest gains and progress made to date in the even-handed almost somnolent prose common to EU documents, until it comes to the issue of anti-Gypsyism - then the tone of the document takes a dramatic turn. It becomes brisk and impatient delineating the failures of Member States to confront one of Europe’s oldest hatreds; the failures to ensure equal access to quality education for Romani children and persistence of segregation in schooling and housing; and the failures to properly transpose and enforce EU anti-discrimination at regional and local level to protect the rights and dignity of Roma all over Europe. The Commission has stepped up its efforts and interventions in this regard, and as of 1 December 2014 it has acquired full enforcement powers in relation to Framework Decisions. It now proactively assesses any problem that may reveal a breach of the Directive, and in this context a number of investigations on discrimination against Roma concerning access to education or housing are underway.

In contrast to its predecessors, this new Commission seems unencumbered by reticence, with regards to its role as guardian of the Treaties when it comes to Roma issues. Beyond its commitment to guarantee that EU anti-discrimination legislation is properly transposed and enforced, as “the necessary starting point in the fight against discrimination,” the Commission declared that it intends to use all means within its competence to fight against discrimination, including infringement proceedings. In addition to legal tools, the communication states that fighting prejudice, discrimination, hate speech and hate crime needs political will and determined targeted action; that funding must be ensured to fight discrimination and segregation; and that in order to combat structural discrimination, mainstream public policies in education, employment, healthcare and housing are in urgent need of thoroughgoing inclusive reform.

The European Commission, in this communication has taken on many of the demands, entreaties and recommendations of nearly ten years of civil society advocacy related to Roma inclusion; in addition to the substance it has even adopted some of the rhetoric. The Commission seems determined to make this Framework matter for Roma. If it lives up to its declared intent to use all means necessary within its competence to fight discrimination, and to do so at a moment when racism and xenophobia have become so much more of a mainstream political disposition in many Member States, we may look forward to interesting times in our search for justice and equality.

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