Roma Question, EU Answer

Law and Order

After years of debate, the EU unveils its first high-level policy document on the Roma. Now it’s up to national governments to fill in the outline.

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Angela Kocze has been a firsthand witness to all the calamities that have befallen her fellow Roma over the two decades since Central and Eastern Europe rid itself of communist rule.

Nevertheless, Kocze is the rare voice to somehow muster “cautious optimism” about the first unified European Union policy to target the plight of the Roma, Europe’s largest, most-despised and most-marginalized minority.

She even swallows a grain of salt in that it’s Hungary, her homeland, that claims the new EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies as a crowning achievement of its just-concluded stint in the presidency of the European Union. Budapest can only hope Western partners will look more kindly upon its six-month reign, which was tainted from the outset by Hungary’s suffocating new media law.

Kocze, a research fellow in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for National and Ethnic Minorities, has for years heard empty – even insincere – promises from Budapest to do something about the subpar education, employment, health, and housing from which many Roma are unable to escape.

Meanwhile, the country has seen the dramatic rise of an openly racist, far-right party. In a not-entirely-unrelated development, nine Hungarian Roma have been murdered in suspected racist attacks, including a man and his 5-year-old son shot as they fled their fire-bombed home.

Yet the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban – despite a number of overtures to the far right over the years – seems to have adopted a new stance, promoting the idea that “Hungarians should not see Roma as a problem, but as an opportunity,” Kocze says. “Something new has started, and there’s an opportunity right now that can be exploited.”

The World Bank and others suggest this could bode well for the estimated 10 million to 12 million Roma, Kocze says, as they offer a vast, able-bodied work force, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

“Europe is going gray, so all these young Roma are an opportunity,” she says. “If they have access to education and jobs, they’ll also pay taxes.”

Some other longtime advocates, not surprisingly, are far more pessimistic.

For years, they’ve tried to be hopeful about ambitious, far-reaching programs – like the Decade of Roma Inclusion, launched in 2005, which was backed by a fleet of organizations, including George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, the United Nations, the World Bank, and others. The endeavor bound together 11 Central and Eastern European countries, plus Spain, to tackle the four primary pillars of Roma marginalization: education, employment, health, and housing.

Despite government pledges, grass-roots critics and ordinary Roma themselves are prone to complain that nothing has changed. Others are more generous with the praise, though.

In an April 2010 article – appearing halfway through the Decade – Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute-Brussels, and Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International’s EU office, cited modest progress made in Hungary, for example, where “more Roma now have access to affordable housing,” and in Romania, where Roma “have more possibilities to go to school.”

Nevertheless, they asserted, “For the most part, national governments have felt little compulsion to help this most marginalized of groups. In some countries, policies even add to discrimination and segregation: despite decades of calls for change, Roma children are still being segregated in schools and often placed in ‘special schools’ with substandard education.”

Foreshadowing the EU Framework, Grabbe and Beger called for Brussels to show leadership: “It should develop benchmarks, spread best practice and persuade member-states to join up their strategies. It also needs to make its own efforts more cohesive. The commission has developed a range of useful tools, but these are still scattered across policy areas and their effect is hard to measure.”

Despite the new EU policy, an advocate like Hungarian sociologist Janos Ladanyi, who traces his activism to the still-communist 1980s, told a June gathering of the European Liberal Forum the Roma situation seemingly “gets worse and worse.” (Sentiments recently echoed by an EU commissioner.)

“We see a lot of programs, a lot of money spent, yet the situation becomes more and more difficult to solve,” Ladanyi told the audience in Budapest. “Many things are already figured out, so we don’t need to discover something new. We know it needs a holistic approach.”

The Roma question has vexed Central and Eastern European countries ever since it became possible again to openly discuss it, two decades ago, as Hungary’s example shows.

Kocze has had a unique vantage point, as a Hungarian Romani woman as far from the anti-Roma stereotype as one can be. A university scholarship 19 years ago plucked her from bleak prospects in her eastern Hungarian village, as one of three daughters born to loving but illiterate parents. Like her cousins, she could easily have become a teen mother, condemned to a lifetime of poverty.

Instead, she ranks among the handful of Roma to climb through higher education. She started at the Budapest School of Politics, then earned two master’s degrees in the capital: in human rights from Central European University, in ethnic and minority studies from Eotvos Lorand University. Later this fall, she’ll defend her doctorate in sociology and social anthropology at CEU.

All along, Kocze has worked to defend Roma rights, through activism and teaching, in particular promoting equal rights to education – the key to Romani emancipation. She knows a few things about Brussels, beating heart of the EU. She spent 2003 and 2004 there, serving as executive director of the European Roma Information Office, a clearinghouse for those grappling with the continent-wide issue.

Despite it all, the Roma have seen only “virtual integration, but real disintegration,” Kocze told the same European Liberal Forum audience, assembled to evaluate Hungary’s performance as EU president. [Disclaimer: this reporter sat on another conference panel, about the media.]

So when Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency on 1 January, one of the government’s first tasks was to fend off several weeks of criticism from other EU states and politicians who charged that its media law and other moves by the Orban government regarded by some as aimed at stifling dissent were unbecoming for a member of their exclusive club of democracies.

Budapest bounced back, determined to make a mark in its first turn as EU president. Though the half-year reign was overshadowed by EU responses to the Arab Spring, Japanese earthquake, and euro zone crisis, Hungary had its share of victories: the closing of accession talks with Croatia, which is set to join the union in 2013; a new “Danube Strategy” for cross-border cooperation (though skeptics wondered where the money would come from); and lastly, the EU-Roma framework.

The policy, Orban said in Brussels on 24 June, “gives Roma the opportunity to become respected and useful citizens of the union.”

There’s a fly in the EU ointment, though. Ladanyi notes that the framework dangles the carrot of EU cash, but no stick accompanies it.

“There are no strict criteria, no sanctions for what happens if a country seriously violates its contract,” he told the audience at the Budapest forum. “There should be EU subsidies, with EU criteria and EU sanctions. If more money is just thrown into the system, that’s worse than nothing.”

From her time in Brussels, Kocze, too, concedes that accountability may once again be lacking.

“I don’t think there will be sanctions, because EU member states pay money to the European Commission,” she says. Brussels has to “stir the soup very gently, you know what I mean?”

Ladanyi’s increasing pessimism imagines economic and social conditions for the Roma deteriorating even more, further exacerbating tensions with the majority.

“It can go on like this forever,” he says. “But this has very dangerous potential: from one moment to the next, it can become a very serious problem for the EU.”

The first litmus test is a 20 December deadline for all governments to submit national strategies within the new framework, including mechanisms for how to distribute funds. If the member states continue to drag their feet and squander political will, Kocze’s concern is that it could not only further demoralize local activists but also exasperate Western forces now applying that vital pressure.

“Quite a few NGOs are really urging national governments to improve the situation, and now the EU has given them a tool,” she says. To that end, she adds, “We have to stay hopeful; otherwise we can close even those doors that are open to the outside world.”

This article originally appeared Sept. 15, 2011, on Transitions Online in Prague.

European Union, Racism, Roma