The Roma Awakening

15 May 2015

By Andrew Ryder

Recent months have witnessed intense debate and even dissension within Roma civil society and academia, which centres on the validity, purpose and structure of Europe wide bodies such as the European Roma Traveller Forum (ERTF), European Academic Network on Romani Studies (EANRS) and the proposed European Roma Institute (ERI).

Underlining these debates is consideration about relations between civil society, academia and Roma communities. Some have termed this intense moment of reflection the ‘Roma Spring’ but the term ‘Roma Awakening’ may be more appropriate. Whenever the tectonic plates of change are in flux, debate can become intense and fierce. Indeed we have seen a number of claims and accusations being made which have not always been conducive to a healthy debate. It is important that these disputes do not undermine a debate that needs to be had. Constructive and amicable debate will provide the surest foundation for meaningful review and reflection.

In an important intervention Martin Demirovski notes that it does not need to be a case of either ERI or ERTF. We can have both! An arts and culture focused ERI could make an invaluable contribution to countering prejudice and racism. In the UK we have seen Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month forge dialogue and partnership between Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities and schools and other services, providing a foundation and starting point for deeper collaboration.

The ERTF has been in operation for ten years and was tasked with an ambitious target to provide a platform and voice for European Roma. The Romani activist Nicolae Gheorghe played a key role in brokering discussion and agreements between different parties which led to the foundation of the ERTF. Gheorghe outlined his aspirations for the ERTF as follows "My first hope from the Forum is that it will manage to create standards, precedents for the national Roma organisations, with its actions and that it will serve as a role model. My second hope is that the Forum will create a vision for addressing the various issues that Roma are confronted with." Gheorghe retained the hope that the ERTF might be a key factor in the development of Roma political culture at a European level, but that the key ingredient was to establish nationally representative organisations, based on inclusive networks of Roma NGOs, political parties or churches which would form the bedrock of the ERTF. Some would argue that the aspirations Gheorghe had for the ERTF are yet to be achieved, it thus remains ‘work in progress’ and a review would be timely.

Recently Ulrich Bunjes, (Council of Europe’s Secretary General’s Special Representative for Roma issues) suggested that the Council of Europe was looking at alternative forms of political engagement but was tempted to copy the approach of the European Commission including its monitoring and declared “nothing would be done without listening to Roma”. However, there has been criticism regarding aspects of EU engagement, the Roma Platform has been accused of being too hierarchical and tokenistic and monitoring and community involvement in this process, in particular the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, has been disjointed.  

However, in the interim a root and branch review of the ERTF and Council of Europe engagement with Roma could provide a deliberative space to chart new directions but should ideally lead to formal structures and channels of communication which embed the Roma voice in decision making. The Council of Europe for instance could give valuable stimulus and resources to monitoring processes which promote participatory and collaborative forms of research which gives voice to the concerns and aspirations of Roma communities. 

Likewise, in order to build upon the mediatory work promoted through Romed, consideration needs to be given as to how best to stimulate and support the development of Roma activism at the grassroots. The original aim of the ERTF, to create national coalitions which democratically elect representatives for the Forum, still has great merit.

With reference to the EANRS this could work in tandem with an ERI and renewed ERTF. The EANRS statement of aims includes a commitment to promote the social inclusion of Romani citizens in Europe, facilitate intercultural dialogue and raise the visibility of existing research outside of the academic community in order to foster cooperation with policymakers and other stakeholders. 

Partnerships with other Europe-wide Roma bodies would help achieve these aims. However, towards the end of 2014 the Scientific Committee of the EANRS informed its membership that it would not hold elections, as had originally been planned, since the project would be scaled down due to the present round of funding expiring in May 2015. Instead the EANRS would focus on the legacy outcomes of the project and the continuance of the online discussion forum. To this end a number of the members of the Scientific Committee would remain in place as a Validation Committee to vet continued membership admission and will invite the membership to think of ways in which the network and its resources can be further developed and promoted. 

I would argue that as with the ERI and ERTF the success and value of the EANRS will be determined by the degree of democracy and opportunities for participation that can be created. In this venture the three groups should experiment and compare and exchange good practice in the challenging task of coalescing a wide range of groups and actors across Europe.

Romani politics has seen over the years a number of transnational umbrella coalitions being established and often bedevilled by top down agendas lacking the firm foundations of a strong grassroots movement. The fate and future of the Europe-wide initiatives outlined above may thus be dependent on a ‘Roma Awakening’ which actually nurtures within Romani communities transformative change which is not subverted or stifled by policy makers and funders. 

The Romani movement and Romani Studies contains a wide array of viewpoints and styles, this is to be celebrated. We will not always agree but we can do better to set a tone for greater respect and fraternity in our deliberations creating an array of forums, networks and movements which mobilise and inspire. A fitting motto might be: ‘One for all and all for one’.


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