The current EU Roma Framework runs out this year – but despite almost a decade of policy activity, not much improvement has materialised. A new Framework is in the making – and only actively listening to Roma people could give a chance to make it better this time. The very existence of an explicit EU Roma policy entails an obligation to involve Roma people in the processes – for that to happen, a large-scale bottom-up process is required.

The European Union’s first Framework for Roma National Integration Strategies (2011-2020) has failed to deliver the promised ‘tangible improvements’ in the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people in Europe and has even contributed to racism and further exclusion. A report of the Open Society Foundations states “although there are number of achievements since 2011, the EU Roma Framework […] fails to achieve its goals in all policy areas, including discrimination”. The Roma Civil Monitor 2020 summarising findings by more than 90 nongovernmental organisations and individual experts from the civil society in 27 EU Member States reveal a similar picture, with significant policy shortcomings and drawbacks in different areas of the EU Framework.

To ensure that the European Commission does better when the Framework is renewed later this year, we need to examine the shortcomings of the present one. One of the most important has been the limited involvement of Roma people in the development and delivery of the Framework itself and its associated National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS) in the Member States. The Framework has also suffered from unreliable data, inadequate problem definition and lack of regulation

During the EU enlargement process, countries from Central and Eastern Europe with significant Roma populations were required to produce written commitments towards their demographically significant Roma minorities to demonstrate compliance with the Copenhagen Criteria. National Roma policies were developed further as part of the voluntary Decade of Roma Inclusion, which also included some West European states.

As Roma have become the focus of specific policies, one of the major challenges facing academics and policy makers has been how to conceptualise the Roma for policy purposes. The depth and spread of prejudiced opinions about Roma evident throughout Europe, combined with the manifest overrepresentation of Roma among the poorest and most marginalised, clearly indicate the consequences of how Roma are defined and presented by political institutions.

The difficulty in understanding who Roma arediscussed by Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov, is reflected in ambiguous and incoherent definitions of the Roma used by European institutions. Both the Council of Europe and the EC have used their authority to impose definitions of Roma that suit their institutional needs rather than reflecting social reality. Despite the aspiration to support Roma, putting together such socially and culturally diverse communities under an umbrella term – which happens to be the name of just one of those groups –, deprives communities of agency and is akin to a form of colonialism by targeting groups without any democratic process of self-definition.

Even though the Roma framework is the EU’s only ethnic policy, the EC has been unwilling to adopt an exclusively ethnic definition of Roma. This institutional ambivalence has direct impact on the quality of policy as shown by the vague ‘official’ estimate of the number of Roma in Europe, but also the lack of disaggregated Roma data to inform the development and monitoring of policy initiatives.

The perception of Roma applied by policymakers not only relates to who is targeted, but also how ‘Roma issues’ are defined. The current framing of Roma as a vulnerable group leads to a definition of mutually reinforcing problems Roma are facing: social exclusion, poverty, discrimination in education, employment, housing and health. Such a framing is not only reductionist but also misleading. As a consequence, some experts argue, the EU Framework, ” addresses the situation of Roma as an ‘integration’ challenge to be tackled via socio-economic policies, and not as historically-rooted ‘antigypsyism’, to be tackled via Rule of Law and transitional justice measures”.

The prejudicial public presentation of Roma could be avoided by listening to Roma people. The very existence of an explicit EU Roma policy entails both a practical and moral obligation to involve Roma people in policy processes, but  Roma participation must mean more than inviting a handful of English-speaking advocates to Brussels. To build trust and social solidarity between communities and authorities, past discrimination and oppression need to be acknowledged and those who are the subject of policy initiatives empowered to express their preferences, define their interests and negotiate their priorities in relation to other groups and institutions.

Roma activism and advocacy has grown significantly in recent decades. In each country there are Roma organisations that have implemented projects and programs and there is a growing number of Roma graduates, some of them from world-class institutions. There are Romani Studies programs at different universities and Roma professors and scholars, there are different platform for knowledge production and debates, numbers of Roma artists, theatre groups and even a European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture. Roma youth have established several transnational networks for activism, including alliances for specific thematic areas such are women rights, combating antigypsyism, and Holocaust commemoration. These developments should be kept in mind while designing policies towards Roma. These groups have the knowledge and capacity to define the problems faced by the Roma and to articulate the collective interest of Roma.

A central aim of the Roma Framework is to raise the priority within public authorities across the EU of improving the situation of Roma. Yet despite the EC actively encouraging Member States to utilise Structural Funds, the limited investment in and impact of the NRIS show that the voices of Roma remain marginal in the competition for resources. Therefore, the next Framework needs to ensure that the Roma’s voice is heard during the process of allocating resources for different societal problems at all levels: EU, national and local.

The next EU Framework must aim to set a mechanism for giving the opportunity to Roma to define their interests and negotiate their priorities. Such a mechanism should set rules for Roma women representation at all levels based on parity. The process should start at a local level, where local authorities, Roma organisations and informal community structures, including experts should invite all Roma groups to deliberate. Thus, all voices would be represented and not only those of certain groups of Roma. Moreover, the priorities will be contextualised and not imposed from above without considering the needs and particular situations of the various local communities. In this way, the diversity among Roma will be not only respected, but also represented. In addition, such a process will provide those groups that are now categorised under the umbrella term “Roma” with an opportunity to decide whether they accept or not to be part of the larger “Roma” category .

Those representing Roma at local level could delegate representatives for regional and national deliberations on Roma policies. At regional and national level, the authorities should make sure that also those minorities among Roma whose identity is stigmatised and whose voices are not heard – such as LGBTIQ-people, persons with disabilities, persons living with HIV, etc. – represented. Hence, an intersectional approach to Roma policies would be made possible. These forums of deliberation should hold regular meetings. Transparency, equality, inclusiveness, civility and accountability to the local communities should govern the work of these forums.

The EU should make sure that such a mechanism is in place in each Member State and that it is functioning. The EU could establish such a deliberative forum itself, to make sure that its policies receive input from Roma. The EU could also provide support to Roma groups to make sure that they can equally participate in this setting. The EU could bring expertise, provide financial instruments to Member States, ensure coordination among Members States and among multiple levels of governance of the issues faced by Roma. The EU should also ensure that Roma participation is not limited by citizenship, so that Roma who are on the territory of another Member State would not be excluded.

Such an EU policy would not only benefit Roma, but all EU citizens. The EU will have to adapt its institutions and agenda to ensure more equality, social justice and respect for the rights of each human being.

Credit Photo: Shutterstock