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Last ditch chance for EU to deal with Roma issue

9 November 2011

By Galina Kostadinova, MRG's Europe Human Rights Law Officer

BRUSSELS – The EU is bracing itself for the European Roma Platform. Convened in Brussels on 17-18 November, the high-profile forum will map out the Union institutions and member states’ ongoing efforts at integrating 10 million Roma, Europe’s largest and most marginalised ethnic minority.

Earlier this year, the EU adopted a Roma Framework urging countries to list measures geared to Roma inclusion by 2020 in the areas of employment, housing, healthcare and education. The Commission is supposed to monitor the process and underwrite it through its substantial regional, social, and agricultural development funds. But shortly after the adoption of this much awaited policy, racist incidents in Bulgaria and other members state have sent a warning that Roma integration is faltering and the EU needs to do much more in addition to fighting poverty.

The crisis in Bulgaria

In late September Bulgaria was seized by mass anti-Roma protests sparked off by the murder of an ethnic Bulgarian youth, allegedly ordered by a notorious crime boss, a self-proclaimed ‘King of the Gypsies’.

What started off as a criminal case soon grew into an interethnic problem: Bulgaria’s entire Roma population was soon blamed for an act committed by an individual. Tens of towns saw repeated anti-Roma marches against ‘Gypsy criminality’. Some of the slogans raised, demanding a radical solution of “the Gipsy problem”, were eerily reminiscent of Nazism.

More than a month after these events, the Bulgarian authorities are still failing to prosecute those involved in anti-Roma hate crimes. While several protesters were reportedly arrested and charged with petty hooliganism, no criminal charges have been brought against the organisers and the political entrepreneurs who supported them.

Following EU rules, Bulgaria’s Criminal Code criminalises “any propaganda or incitement to racial, national or ethnic hostility or hatred, or racial discrimination through words, print or other means of mass information”.

But numerous such instances during the rallies, as well as on national and local media or in social networks such as Facebook have remained unpunished. The non-enforcement of the law leaves a sense of impunity and erodes the little mutual trust remaining between Roma and non-Roma communities.

Even worse, the turmoil has dealt a blow to years of efforts at social inclusion of Roma, reversing some modest gains made. Rallies have stirred up fear and panic among the minority. Real threats or false rumours about imminent incursions and arson attacks have terrified the Roma neighbourhoods.

Some Roma have mobilised into defence squads. Fear of violence has kept many in their communities away from work or business in towns’ mixed areas. According to Bulgarian Roma NGOs, the ones who suffer most are the Roma willing to integrate into mainstream society, those who are employed and who send their children to mixed, rather than segregated schools.

Brussels needs to act

For all its specificity, Bulgaria is not unique. The Czech Republic and Hungary have just witnessed similar waves of anti-Gypsysm. While anti-Roma hostility has long been on the rise throughout the continent, recent outbursts differ from the isolated assaults by skinheads seen in the past. They have drawn support from a much larger segment of the populace. This alarming trend should be taken into account in future initiatives on Roma inclusion.

State response has universally been inadequate. Governments are unwilling to identify and punish hate crimes affecting Roma people’s lives and, ultimately, their integration into mainstream societies. The European Commission could potentially make a difference through outright condemnation of anti-Roma hostility. However, its reaction has been thus far disappointingly timid.

Though deepening euro crisis along with the EU’s ingrained fear not to tread into member states’ remit may explain such caution, anti-Gypsysm challenge Union’s fundamental principles enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. As the EU’s principal watchdog, the Commission is mandated to rigorously monitor the implementation of the Equality Directive, a mighty instrument for combating ethnic discrimination, as well as the EU Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia.

Brussels has the legitimacy and opportunity to take action. The Council Conclusions on the EU Roma Framework further beef up the role played by the Commission, specifically enabling it to take steps for combating anti-Roma stereotypes, xenophobia and racism. The trouble is that the Commission has unduly narrowed its focus. It zooms in on the poverty aspects of the Roma predicament. Less attention is paid on prevention and protection from hate speech and hate crimes. In truth, poverty and social exclusion cannot be tackled separately from racial hostility and stigmatisation.

Sustainable anti-poverty initiatives are contingent on winning support from majority populations through positive campaigning, broader discussions and community involvement. No Roma children would enter schools, for instance, if their parents are deterred by racially motivated harassment or hostility. Roma men and women would steer clear from mixed areas if they are stigmatised by virtue of their ethnicity.

Next week’s EU Roma Platform is a last-ditch chance for the Commission to condemn the surge of anti-Gypsysm across Europe and to help member states forge an effective and comprehensive integration model including not only the fight against poverty but also measures against anti-Roma violence, hostility, and stigmatisation. It is an opportunity the Union should not miss.

As published 8 November 2011 in EU Observer.