Given the limited results achieved to date by the EU and EU member states in addressing the multiple exclusion of the Romani people in Europe, it is time to rethink some of the assumptions on which past initiatives have been built. Here I would like to suggest, very briefly, some ways to reframe the current debate on the Roma in Europe.
In a recent article, trying to answer the question ‘Why have the Roma become a target and a scapegoat in France today?’ the French sociologist Éric Fassin reminded us that the ‘object of phobia is not to be mistaken for its source’ and that the ‘explanation of politics is of political nature’ (Fassin, 2010). These remarks suggest that, in order to understand what is happening in the EU today in relation to Romani communities, we must turn our gaze away from the Roma. Instead, we need to examine the broader picture: more particularly, the EU, an institutional and political construction that has undergone two decades of transition, enlargement, and institutional, economic and social restructuring, and that is currently under incredible pressure as a result of the financial crisis and rampant nationalism. We can then try to locate the Roma within these processes.
The Roma are a testing ground and an opportunity for the EU political project. Attempts to portrait them as exotic and other to the imagined EU community hide a centuries long history of bans, forced migration and expulsion, but also cohabitation and conviviality. The Roma are one of the peoples that makes the European Union, much like the Swedes or the Danes (including numerically), and not some kind of alien body from a remote elsewhere; yet they are nonetheless a people without adequate institutional representation. The current attempt to curb their mobility (as well as their right to establish themselves in another member state) challenges one of the key pillars of the European Union and, at a time of major structural tensions, calls into question the capacity of the EU to fully embrace its mandate vis-à-vis the mounting nationalist demands of member states. The Roma ‘threat’ is manipulated and used by Eurosceptic political actors to score points against the overall EU project.
As I have shown in Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe (Sigona and Trehan, 2009) apart from structural tensions resulting from rapid economic transformation, the transition of formerly socialist states towards capitalism has been characterised by a search for foundational myths to redefine the relationship between state and nation. In such a context, nationalist movements have grown stronger, and so have numerous far-right racist and xenophobic groups that have marked out for themselves increasingly large spaces in the political life of most European countries. This overall shift to the right, exacerbated by the existing confusion in the social-democratic camp, has turned the Roma, a minority without significant political representation, into an easy target for racist campaigns that at times culminate in violence.
In contemporary Europe, racism against Roma is not just confined to a few extremist fringe elements. Successive Eurobarometer surveys1 underline just how widespread prejudice and stereotypes about this minority are. Interestingly, despite this widespread intolerance towards the Roma, terms such as anti-Gypsyism and Romaphobia only entered EU’s political vocabulary in the mid-2000s. To be effective, any solution has to acknowledge the ‘mainstream’ nature of anti-Romani sentiments; this is not the case for example in the EU Framework for national Roma integration strategies.2
The history of Romani communities in Europe is marked by episodes of mass persecution, violence and discrimination perpetrated by both institutional and non-institutional agents. The mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Roma systematically carried out by the Nazi regime before and during World War II was the culmination of a process, not an isolated episode. The construction of the Romani communities as a ‘race of criminals’ genetically inclined to crime was a central component of the ideological apparatus that provided a ‘justification’ for the genocide of European Roma.
To understand the contemporary spread of anti-Gypsyism in neoliberal Europe and the link between the racial criminalization of the Roma and discriminatory policy and practice, we should bear in mind that anti-Gypsyism is not a new phenomenon; nonetheless, in its current configuration, it is inextricably intertwined with the transformations that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, the consolidation of liberal democracies and neoliberal economic principles in the European Union, and processes of pauperisation experienced by many Romani communities.
A new critical approach addressing the root causes of Roma exclusion is urgently needed. This must include an understanding of the Roma history of exclusion within the history of Europe, and place the successful participation of the Roma in European polity at the core of the EU project. This is where the Roma belong.
1 For more information: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm.
2 For more information: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/discrimination/roma/national-strategies/index_en.htm.
Fassin, E. (2010) ‘Why the Roma?’, Theory, Culture & Society blog (7 October), http://theoryculturesociety.blogspot.com/2010/10/eric-fassin-why-roma.htm.
Sigona, N. and Trehan, N. (2009) ‘Introduction: Romani Politics in Neoliberal Europe’, in N. Sigona, and N. Trehan (eds.) Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe: Poverty, Ethnic Mobilization and the Neoliberal Order, Basingstoke: Palgrave.