Last October, the European Commission presented its “EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation” as a part of their work on the Union of Equality and following its anti-racism action plan 2020-2025. With 12 million across the continent, the Roma community is the largest ethnic minority in Europe and it has suffered exclusion for centuries. Within this new strategy and the guidelines for its implementation, the European Commission has a series of goals that focus primarily on a stand-alone focus on the fight against anti-gypsyism, but also urges Member States to give priority to education, employment, housing and health. Despite an already-existing Roma strategy since 2011, the situation of this community has been dire and has barely improved in the last decade.
This lack of improvement is not solely measured in terms of Roma people's barriers to accessing education, employment, housing and health services. Societal exclusion remains present for the Roma community, with a survey carried out by the Fundamental Rights Agency finding that half of the participants had faced discrimination in the previous year (particularly those living in Western Europe). This is particularly concerning because it follows on from a survey to EU citizens in which 45% of the respondents answered that they would feel uncomfortable having Roma as neighbours.
For this reason, it is encouraging to see that in the new framework, the European Commission puts the focus on acting against anti-gypsyism and fighting discrimination against this community. However, as much as this is a step forward, there needs to be a way to hold Member States accountable for the implementation and monitoring of Roma antidiscrimination measures. The Commission’s new targets are commendable, but they are not binding, as indicated by the choice of the legal instrument to put them forward (a Council Recommendation). A decade of little progress should have shown the Council and the Commission that actions speak louder than words and, so far, little action has been taken to ensure that Member States follow through with the implementation of the framework. This is particularly a problem when there are national governments and security forces who have actively targeted the Roma community both before and during the COVID-19 crisis, making them victims of institutionalised racism.
High-Level conference by #EU2020DE, during which I officially launched the new ‘EU Roma Strategic Framework for Equality, Inclusion and Participation’ for the next 10 years. We need to ensure that Roma benefit from the same common European standards.#EURoma2030#UnionOfEquality pic.twitter.com/Ti8adsY8d8
— Helena Dalli (@helenadalli) October 12, 2020
Roma communities, unaccounted victims of COVID-19 (in)action
The pandemic has worsened the already alarming living conditions of many Roma people, with up to 80% of Roma in some countries living in cramped neighbourhoods with overcrowded housing, which has made distancing impossible. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, asked Member States to implement measures specific for Roma communities. However, far from being offered a helping hand, they were “forcefully evicted from their homes, scapegoated by the far-right, denied equal access to healthcare, and left out of emergency policy-making”, as indicated in the report by the European Roma Rights Centre on Roma rights in the time of COVID. The report also found that the pandemic has worsened the situation of marginalised Romani communities, which were already more at risk given their limited access to healthcare, drinking water and food, amongst others.
Another report showcases the inadequacy of the measures taken by Member States when it comes to fighting further exclusion of Roma communities during the pandemic. It states that there are gaps in the provision of essential services, highlighting the lack of social assistance to those who work in the informal economy or the difficulties of Roma children to access distanced learning. It states that countries who have taken measures are the exception to the rule and, in any case, those measures are only a short-term fix to the problems encountered by Roma communities. There are also alarming cases such as the one in Slovakia, where there were forced closures of Roma settlements during the pandemic. To add insult to injury, there have been media outlets blaming Roma for the spread of the virus as some of them returned to their countries of origin during the crisis.
Yet, it is not surprising that Roma communities are amongst the main victims of the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic given their extremely precarious situation already before the pandemic. At the time of the publication of the new Commission Strategy, 80% of Roma people were at risk of poverty, a mere 28% completed secondary school, only 43% of them were in paid work, and 62% were NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training). With this in mind, it is a positive sign that the Commission has set concrete targets to reduce such substantial gaps and requests Member States to develop national plans in order to meet the new targets by 2030.
Progressive steps forward from a local and regional perspective
The PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions welcomes the Commission’s new framework. However, the Strategy's success heavily depends on the degree of decentralisation of its governance. In his opinion about the new Roma Strategic Framework, PES rapporteur and local councillor of the Hungarian municipality of Nagykanizsa Jácint Horváth calls for the full involvement of local and regional authorities in the design of national action plans. Being the level of governance with most responsibilities for the integration of Roma populations, these authorities are fully aware of the challenges on the ground and can help in the elaboration of place-based approaches and the implementation of tailor-made solutions. At the same time, we firmly believe that making national Roma strategic frameworks mandatory is one of the key elements for progress in Roma integration and inclusion. This is the answer for those Member States which did not prepare strategic frameworks in the previous cycle of the strategy since they were only optional.
The new framework should not only include binding measures, but also effectively address institutional racism against Roma.
The European Parliament's 2020 resolution on the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies: combating negative attitudes towards people with Romani background in Europe suggests a post 2020 EU Directive for the Equality and Inclusion of people with Romani background, in other words, a legislative act with a binding character for the Member States, allowing for Romani inclusion goals to be reached. This is a proposal we fully share.
Horváth goes on to suggest that the Commission should consider the creation of a European advisory board, consisting, inter alia, of experts in Roma policies and involving also local and regional authorities with tangible experience on Roma issues on the ground.
He also insists on the need, beyond material resources, for a change of narrative about Roma people. National Roma Integration Strategies can only be successful if they combat negative attitudes towards people with Romani identity. Anti-gypsyism is fought on the ground with concrete facts and figures, and through education, with familiarisation with Roma culture and history.
"We need representatives from Roma communities to be involved in regional consultations.
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) February 3, 2021
In his opinion, Horváth emphasises that for progress to happen in the next ten years, there need to be changes starting with:
- Successfully implementing integration and inclusion policies, which should fully empower Roma people to exercise their rights and responsibilities linked to EU citizenship.
- Learning the lessons from the implementation of previous national Roma strategies and fostering the exchange of best practices.
- Making national Roma strategic frameworks mandatory.
- Reforming drastically the resource-allocation system and developing institutional and absorption capacities, while streamlining and simplifying procedures in order to bring them closer to the citizens and make them more transparent.
- Creating local and regional exchange forums to monitor the implementation of the framework, exchange good practices and create a form of accountability across countries and the Union.
- Developing programmes that will give practical tools to Roma populations (and other small communities) by providing them with knowledge that will help them in everyday life.
- Including elements of Roma history and culture in educational curricula to combat anti-gypsyism.
Ensuring the meaningful participation of Roma people in the design and implementation of measures that concern them. For the New EU Roma Strategic Framework to be a solid stairway to equality, inclusion and participation, with fully-fledged enforceable targets within a set timeframe, we need the political will to implement the proposed measures at grassroots level. For this, progressive local and regional politicians are key enablers, implementing tangible projects on the ground but also helping to counter Roma-related prejudices and promoting intercultural learning to fight anti-Roma racism.
A Union of Equality cannot move forward if we leave millions of people behind and progressive local and regional authorities have proved they can deliver effectively on integration and inclusion.