Accessibility links

Breaking News

Europe Has Failed To Move From Scapegoating To Inclusion

Romany family in Ukraine
Romany family in Ukraine
In 1984, I started a project with the Russian writer Eduard Uspensky. After many difficulties with the Soviet authorities, our satirical children's book, "The Year Of The Good Child," was published, and in 1989 it won the Arkady Gaidar Award. I have been writing on Eastern European topics ever since.

I was fascinated by postcommunist societies, where former party officials changed colors overnight and awoke as "biznesmeni" or freedom fighters. Western politicians welcomed their newly reborn counterparts as if a real intelligentsia had never existed in the East. In a wave of privatizations, some people made money, but many lost their jobs and most became rather poor. For this vast majority there was no safety net: no health care, no free education. Maybe the first Big Mac was supposed to compensate for the fact that shops became too expensive.

The rise of extreme-right-wing parties in Europe started 15 years ago, fueled by the frustrations of Eastern Europeans, who needed three or more salaries to feed a family. Poor themselves, they often blamed the poorest for their misery: the Roma. It is always easier to point at your neighbor than to analyze complex situations, especially when your neighbor's skin and traditions are different. Sometimes former communists supported right-wing movements because vilifying Roma diverted attention from the growing wealth of the happy few.

While researching a new book on poverty and corruption during the early 2000s, I began criticizing the European Parliament for ignoring what was going on. This is how, in 2004, I was asked to enter the parliament myself.

My focus was on Eastern Europe, with the Romany issue as top priority. I drafted questions on the serious corruption, the lack of transparency, and the misuse of funds that rarely reached the Roma. On the contrary, the so-called gypsy industry was a profitable business for imitation NGOs that kept Roma poor, as sustainable poverty was in their direct interest.

But the European Commission did not begin closer monitoring. The main results of my inquiries and parliamentary research were slander in the Bulgarian press and computer viruses and hate mail at home. Together with fellow MEPs, I urged the commission to initiate a Roma strategy: concrete measures that would lead to social inclusion in education and jobs.

Europe's Litmus Test

In the early 1990s, Czech President President Vaclav Havel stated that the plight of the Roma would be the litmus test of Europe's democracy. In Bulgaria, Romany children were dying in orphanages; in Italy, there were pogroms and killings by mobs; in Hungary, Romany families died in arson attacks. Hundreds of Roma migrated to Canada as political refugees. And so on.

Europe had failed its exams. Instead of a Roma strategy, Brussels initiated a platform for discussion and yearly Roma summits. It added words to words.

In 2009, I finished my mandate in a European Parliament in which a Hungarian MEP earned less than 800 euros a month while an Italian MEP received 11,000 euros. Europe was united -- but with one long leg and one short leg. It was crippled and tended to fall.

After leaving the parliament in 2009, I drafted a Roma strategy that I presented to the European Commission. For many years, I had enjoyed good connections in the Romany community. I was familiar with the situation in the poorest ghettos, where I had stayed while writing my books. And I personally knew many skilled young Roma who wanted to be involved in the process of employing and educating their people.

One of the biggest mistakes of mainstream society is adopting a paternalistic approach. The best way to include is inclusion -- sharing responsibilities and joining forces. Treating people like unstable minors is close to discrimination.

The cabinet of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso appreciated my proposals on Romany participation and referred me to Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights Viviane Reding. For unclear reasons, she rejected my free-of-charge offer. One week later, President Nicolas Sarkozy put Roma on the agenda by collective deportations from France on the basis of ethnicity. Reding was initially furious but later softened her stance.

Nonetheless, thousands of Roma have been expelled from France; and beginning in October, the French Ministry of Immigration announced the introduction of a biometric system. Roma will be fingerprinted so that expellees cannot return.

In 2008, the European Parliament condemned Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for doing similar things. MEPs dressed in shirts with huge fingerprints in the colors of the Italian flag. Brussels let Berlusconi off the hook when he stopped the fingerprinting, but he did not rescind the emergency laws that allowed him to take special measures.

Sarkozy and Berlusconi have much in common, but it would be naive to think that France and Italy are alone in their behavior. Quite a few European member states have signed readmission agreements with Eastern European countries, allowing them to expel thousands of Roma who fled in the 1990s and whose children were born in Germany and other Western countries. The EU is playing ping-pong with its largest minority, people trying to escape from violence, discrimination, and poverty.

Still Exclusionary

With 10 million people, Roma are 20 times the population of Luxembourg, which has its own commissioner. Roma, however, don't have a single official in the commission. The recently formed task force does not include a Rom either. Nor does the EU Framework Strategy on National Roma Inclusion, announced for next spring!

How can Brussels "include" a nation by excluding it?

For the first time, the EU has a commissioner for fundamental rights. But why doesn't she visit the Romany ghettos? Why doesn't she set an example by including Roma in her own office? Why do Roma, present in so many states and representing so many religions, lack the nationalistic support other citizens enjoy? This is a crucial question.

This summer, I started the Artists Initiative, a global movement of more than 100 filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians, dancers, and photographers against Romaphobia as well as homophobia and anti-Semitism. Against all the dark forces that produced the Holocaust -- called Porajmos in the Romany language. We don't need scapegoats but joint creativity. It is pointless and destructive to blame the weakest among us when the time has come to admit we have common interests.

Els de Groen is an author and journalist who served as a member of the European Parliament from 2004 until 2009. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL