Rising anti-Romani rhetoric – Blaming the victims?

Unhelpful comments from Viviane Reding indicate how anti-Romani discourses are creeping into the mainstream

On Wednesday 12 February staff and students at Canterbury Christ Church University had the privilege to hear the personal testimony of Mala Tribich a survivor of the Holocaust. The next day, while coming to terms with this searing account of our capacity to be so cruel to those who we see as ‘other’, I read reports of comments by Viviane Reding about Roma migration in the EU. Ms Reding is the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship and Vice-President of the European Commission so what she says about Romani migration is very important. Addressing the increasing concern about the numbers of citizens migrating from ‘new’ EU states to ‘older’, wealthier member states she said this:

“Let me name the problem – the problem are the Roma people – the 10-12 million European citizens who live almost everywhere, not only in Bulgaria and Romania, most of them living in horrid poverty conditions,” … “Let’s be honest, this is our problem.”

On the one hand perhaps Reding is right to be blunt about an issue that many others have been skirting around. The furore in the UK before Christmas for example was framed as a concern about an influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants, but everyone knew that the concern was not about Romanian doctors coming to fill desperately needed vacancies, but Romanian Roma who it was claimed would scrounge ‘our’ benefits. However, if even the EU Commissioner for Fundamental Rights thinks that Roma themselves are the cause of their woes, then it legitimates the Romophobic rhetoric of unscrupulous politicians who see Roma as useful scapegoats for all kinds of political problems. Having just heard the testimony of a survivor of a genocide fuelled by discourses of Jews and Roma being the cause of their own problems, Reding’s comments hit a nerve.

For a time it was hoped that the European Commission would be the powerful advocate Romani citizens needed given their lack of a kin state to give them a voice at the highest levels of politics. However, if even the most senior EU officials are now joining the Roma blame game, then I really do not know where we will go from here. While this may herald another dark period in Romani history, it also exposes fundamental problems which challenge the EU project to the core.  The EU aims to build a prosperous, integrated community based on principles of equality and human rights. However, in the ten years since the ‘big bang’ accession of 10 new members, the EU has struggled to integrate Romani EU citizens and provide them with access to the core benefits of citizenship.

Finding an effective policy to ‘deal’ with Roma has challenged European states since their presence was first formally documented in the Middle Ages. Expulsions, enslavement, forced assimilation and extermination were all implemented and yet communities of Roma managed to survive.

When communist parties came to power in Central and Eastern Europe new attempts were made to ‘solve’ the Roma ‘question’ and thus demonstrate the superiority of state socialism. Today some look back on this period with a sense of nostalgia. Children attended school. Adults of working age had employment. Everyone had access to social housing and health care. However, there was a dark side to this policy too. Yes, children received an education, but in schools for children with learning disabilities. Yes, there was employment, but Roma tended to have the most menial roles. Yes, there was access to health care, but women were routinely sterilised, often without consent, to stem the growth of this minority population. Acts of hate speech were forbidden in societies where all free speech was suppressed but so too were attempts to foster and promote a positive sense of Romani identity. The solution according to communist policy was to provide a social safety net in return for complete assimilation into the majority nation. However, the majority nations were less sure that they wanted to include Roma in their ‘imagined communities’.

When state socialism collapsed in 1989 conditions deteriorated rapidly for Roma. With free speech came hate speech and racially motivated attacks. With economic liberalisation came mass redundancies. With free elections came conflicts over the legitimate representation of extremely diverse communities.

Enter the EU. Applicant states quickly understood that they could only join the EU if they could guarantee (among other things) the protection of minorities. Huge sums of money were made available to support integration projects and the Commission published regular reports evaluating progress. However, when officials in applicant states looked to the ‘old’ members for modules of successful practice, they found very few. The human rights of Roma already in the EU were simply less of a priority because they were fewer in number.

Once they were legally entitled to do so, Roma began to move westwards. While this migration has often been misinterpreted as nomadism, there is one key difference between Romani migration and that of other national or ethnic groups of migrants. Instead of single men coming to work and sending money home to support their families, whole families travelled together. This caused disruption and problems for local authorities, but nowhere in EU law is this forbidden. Freedom of movement is exactly what is says on the tin.

In the intervening years, Roma have been subjected to disgraceful attacks by politicians, which have gone unpunished despite the EU’s claims to champion human rights. In 2008 a state of emergency was declared in Italy as politicians tried to outdo each other in terms of populist rhetoric. In France a secret circular was uncovered in 2010 which revealed a targeted policy to prioritise the deportation of Romani migrants. Even in the UK mainstream politicians have begun to make statements which we are more used to hearing from populist politicians. Previously, Reding has defended Roma against this rising tide of Romophobia, even referencing the experiences of World War Two. This is why her claim this week that it is the Roma who are the problem is so shocking. Rather than blame the deep structural issues which cause so many to live in grinding poverty, or the increasing anti-Romani rhetoric seeping into mainstream debate, she appears to be blaming the victims.

It is clear that the EU Roma policy requires a rethink. There has been an assumption that neo-liberal free market principles and Roma cultural projects – the reverse of the communist approach to the Roma question – would allow Roma to solve their own problems. What remains unaddressed, despite the Race Equality Directive which should protect Roma from discrimination, are the attitudes of the majority populations in EU states whose entrenched views about the ‘impossible’ Roma go unchallenged.

There are no quick fixes to integrating Romani communities but some excellent work is being done at the grass roots level and often with EU funding and support. Of course individual member states need to take responsibility for their citizens in the first instance, as the Commission insists. No European citizen should feel compelled to emigrate. However, if they wish to move to another part of the EU then they should not fear being burned out of their homes, physically or verbally threatened or blamed for their misfortune. We always tell ourselves that we should never allow lessons of the Holocaust to be forgotten. We will never know how many Roma were murdered during the Porrajmos because people accepted the Nazi discourse that they were choosing to live in an anti-social way.  While the current situation may seem far removed from those dark days, it is unsettling to see those views being aired and tolerated again.

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