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Le ragioni dell'inclusione

Perché' la promozione dei diritti dei rom e' un vantaggio per tutti

03 gennaio 2009, di Jan Jarab

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour as well as a pleasure for me to address this important Round Table which will deal with the European, national and local level of policies aiming to promote the inclusion of Roma and Sinti people in our societies.

I would like to thank you for the invitation of Commissioner Vladimír Špidla, who was unfortunately not able to come and participate in this event. Nonetheless, I would like to express the Commissioner's greetings to all of you who are here today, and to assure you that Commissioner Špidla has great appreciation for the difficult task of those who work tirelessly on improving the plight of the Roma - as many of you do.

Ethical and economic arguments for Roma inclusion

Commissioner Špidla regards the issue of Roma inclusion as one of the most pressing ethical issues which Europe has to deal with in the beginning of the 21st century. As the Commissioner always mentions, however, it is also an economic issue: exclusion is costly. The World Bank has recently calculated that in the Czech Republic itself, Roma exclusion brings about some 230 million Euros of direct costs but also some 360 million Euros of losses in terms of productivity. It is simply not affordable to have masses of people - and a young population as the Roma are, in the context of general population ageing - living on welfare while they could and should be contributors to the system.

The solution, of course, is not to cut welfare and leave these people destitute, but rather to integrate them into the labour market and into broader society. It has to be remembered that if mainstream societies do not offer such opportunities to the marginalised groups such as the Roma, sooner or later organised crime will do so. This is well known from Latin America where large numbers of poor people from rural areas have migrated to big cities and started living in shantytowns around them. Thirty years ago, the shantytowns were known for poverty, disorder and petty crime. Today, however, many of them are much worse, even though not all their inhabitants have remained poor. But the shantytowns have developed into parallel worlds where those who have become rich are the people who have done so through organised crime. This, indeed, is a scenario which Europe should certainly try to avoid.

Roma and their socio-economic status in the 1990s and 2000s

Over the last two decades, we have witnessed a clear deterioration of the status of Roma people in the Czech Republic, as well as in several other new Member States. While generally the level of education in these countries has improved tremendously since 1989, the education levels of the Roma have actually deteriorated.

While practically all Roma held jobs at the end of the Communist era (though mostly unskilled jobs), nowadays a very high percentage of them have been squeezed outside the active labour market as a result of economic re-structuring, as a result of losing in competition with better-skilled migrants from abroad (above all from the territory of the former Soviet Union), but also as a result of more or less open discrimination and racism. Racist attacks by neo-Nazi groups, which were non-existent before 1989, are now quite frequent; and only the most dramatic ones are actually reported in the media.

All this is not to say, of course, that Communism would have been superior to democracy and market economy; after all, the Communists' heavy-handed policies of assimilation towards the Roma which involved the destruction of their cultural heritage were not all that positive either. However, it is clear that the Roma were hardest hit by the growth of economic inequalities in the post-Communist countries, which was perhaps to some degree inevitable because in free market economies the differences in education and skills started having much more pronounced consequences. And it is perhaps fair to say that the mainstream societies in most of these new Member States did little to reverse this phenomenon of relative or even absolute downfall of the Roma. It can even be said that their populations largely regarded this phenomenon from a Social Darwinist perspective, as if it were something that the Roma had deserved, something they alone were to be blamed for. This, indeed, remains the dominant viewpoint in the media of most of the new Member States.

Increasingly, though, we are becoming aware that the issue of Roma and their social exclusion is not restricted only to new Member States, being highly relevant also in some old Member States, for instance Italy and Greece. By contrast, during those last two decades, at least one Member State - Spain - has seen remarkable improvement of the situation of its Roma (or as they say, Gitano) citizens.

Even in Spain, of course, the struggle is far from being over; even in Spain, the Roma remain an underprivileged group with significantly under-average education and income. But they are far better off, on the whole, than two decades ago. Roma slums which used to surround Madrid and other large cities have by and large been removed; most of their former inhabitants now live in quite acceptable normal housing. A large percentage of these people, most of whom had no formal qualification and no formal jobs, are now working with the formal economy.

And above all, whenever you participate in an event focused on Roma affairs in Spain, there is a level of optimism and consensus which is difficult to find anywhere else. Of course, there are differences of opinion; some focus more on the achievements while others are more critical, dwelling on what remains to be done. But practically all the stakeholders, from government representatives to radical NGOs, agree that (1) there has been an improvement, (2) that further improvement is both necessary and possible, and (3) that it needs to come through a constructive engagement of the government with the Roma themselves. There is also a broad party-political consensus to which both main political blocks subscribe without difference - namely, that promoting effective equality for the Roma means creating opportunities for them, not cracking down on them. There is no significant political force in Spain which would try to get votes by further increasing the social exclusion of the Roma.

Can-do approach

Why talk at length about the Spanish example? Because it deserves to be promoted not just as an example of good intentions but also as an example of rational, evidence-based policies. Above all, it shows that even in such a difficult area as the social inclusion of the Roma people, there is space for a can-do approach, that we should start from the premise of "yes we can" (to paraphrase Barack Obama), and not from defeatism and nihilism or else from a repressive approach which is very widespread in Europe today.

There is conscious political choice involved. As a Romany friend told me, it seems that the Spaniards used the newly found freedom after the end of the Franco era as freedom to include others (for instance the Roma), while in Central and Eastern Europe we have seen freedom being explicitly used as freedom to exclude them. Indeed, in the Czech Republic there is a small Eurosceptic party which is called Party of Free Citizens and its Vice-Chair is a Senator who, when she was still a mayor of a municipality in northern Moravia, offered the Roma in her city one-way plane tickets to Canada while also making public statements in which she proudly professed being a racist and wanting to solve the Roma question by "dynamite". One is reminded in this context of Orlando Patterson, the Afro-American political scientist whose book Freedom in the Making of Western Culture showed how often "freedom" is understood as the freedom of the strong to trample on the weak and to make them into scapegoats.

Thus, the first lesson of the Spanish experience - which is confirmed by simple common sense - is that there needs to be a constructive policy, a genuine wish (on part of the authorities) to improve the situation of the Roma, not to frame the issue as being primarily a security problem. Repressive approaches rarely solve social problems, and in the long run they often aggravate them.

I hasten to say at this point that the European Commission does not see the Roma themselves as mere innocent and passive victims either. Of course the Roma do have some degree of choice and agency; of course individuals must be held responsible for their actions; of course those who commit offences must be punished according to the law (though of course we should be aware of the very limited choices that people living in social exclusion actually have).

And yes, those Roma who can take more constructive responsibility should be encouraged to do so. Yes, we all must try to improve this situation - everyone from the European Commission through national Governments and regional and local administrations to NGOs and, finally, the people who live in poverty and social exclusion themselves. But from a rational and humane perspective, it seems very clear that those who have power - the authorities on whichever level - have vastly disproportionate means to start changing the situation, compared to the people experiencing poverty themselves.

Explicit but not exclusive policies

The second lesson of the Spanish experience is a pragmatic one: that policies which aim to improve the situation of the Roma should be explicitly targeted towards this group, but not exclusive, which means that other people of other ethnic background should also be enabled to participate in the programmes: that is, for instance, the case of the Spanish ACCEDER programme where, if I am not mistaken, about 60% of the beneficiaries are Roma while the remaining 40% are not.

The programmes need to be explicitly focused on Roma at least for two reasons:

  • because otherwise the more standard anti-poverty policies will simply not reach them (this was the experience of the Spaniards in the first programming period of the European Social Fund - those who design projects simply prefer to work with "easier" groups of clients unless there is a specific focus on Roma);
  • because there is often a need for a specific approach which will take into account the different cultural background, different experiences and expectations of the Roma.

But they should also be non-exclusive, also at least for two reasons:

  • because the inter-cultural dimension created by the meeting of Roma and other people has been proven to be mutually beneficial;
  • and, even more importantly, because the aim of such programmes should not be to create artificial, project-only-based labour markets (which only survive as long as the project itself), nor should they perpetuate segregated education and housing - by contrast, they should aim to integrate the Roma into mainstream jobs, mainstream education and mainstream housing.

In this context, I would like to point out that the Spain, of course, had some specific advantages in dealing with their Roma issues. Above all, the "Gitanos" were Spanish citizens; they spoke Spanish and did not have language difficulties; and although they had been stigmatised for centuries, they were nonetheless seen as an integral part of Spanish society. That is not necessarily the case in some other Member States where the Roma are predominantly migrants. However, it needs to be pointed out that even in Spain many Roma were in fact internal migrants, having migrated from rural Andalusia to the large cities in central and northern Spain.

Moreover, it has to be admitted that even the Spaniards reached their current balanced policies through trial and error. In the early-to-mid-1990s, some Spanish municipalities tried to clear slums by building clusters of simple houses in other outlying places, outside cities. But it turned out that in such cases, the peak of success is achieved at the moment when the people are moved from one location to another. Unless they have jobs there, and if that other location is similarly far from the normal labour market, it gradually deteriorates as well. Later, therefore, the Spanish authorities concluded that it was simply not a good investment to move and improve ghettoes and that the only good investment was to dissolve ghettoes in normal housing (even if it is social housing, but in the normal city). I would argue that the same holds true also for so-called camps of "nomads", which is in fact a misnomer because only a small minority of Roma still more or less deliberately practice an itinerant lifestyle. In fact, most East European Roma whom we see moving into Western Europe are destitute economic migrants rather than "nomads".

EU Structural Funds and their potential

Finally, the success, or at least relative success, of the Spanish model was also due to rational use of three levels of funding: local, national and EU. The ACCEDER programme, which I have already mentioned, was to a large extent financed from the European Social Fund. Therefore, the European Commission very much welcomed one Spain initiated - in 2007 - an EU Roma Network of experts on the use of EU Structural Funds.

More recently, the European Commission itself has taken a more active role in promoting the potential of the Structural Funds for the Roma. In October, there was a high level visit of a Commission team headed by Commissioner Špidla (and consisting of experts on the ESF as well as on the European Regional Development Fund) to Hungary, where they met with the Prime Minister, President and relevant Ministers while the experts attended workshops on the use of the Structural Funds for the Roma. By the way, Hungary is - after Spain - the second Member State which has decided to focus explicitly on Roma in their Structural Funds efforts and to include a desegregation clause in all projects (i.e., resources cannot be used for instance on schools which have segregated classes unless they aim at the desegregation of these classes).

EU Platform for Roma Inclusion and the Common Basic Principles

Quite obviously, the European Union cannot replace the Member States in their responsibilities. I see that the title of this round table includes the term "European Strategy", and I must admit that we are cautious even about using the word "strategy" so as not to give the slightest hint that perhaps we could somehow "Europeanize" the Roma issue and evacuate the responsibilities towards Brussels. It seems that some of our NGO stakeholders have such a wish, but it would be unrealistic and counterproductive. After all, while there is a European Community legal framework on non-discrimination (the so-called Race Equality Directive 2000/43/EC), all the specific key policy areas relevant to the Roma - employment, education, housing and the like - are situated predominantly within the responsibility of Member States themselves. And the Treaty does not authorize the Commission to create specific policies for specific ethnic groups.

Moreover, there are also practical reasons why it would be difficult if not impossible to imagine a "strategy" pursued centrally from Brussels. Namely, the Roma populations themselves are heterogeneous and the situation of Roma in various Member States is quite divergent - some Member States have tiny populations, in others the Roma numbers are in the hundreds of thousands or even in the millions. (Thus, Romania has Europe's largest population of poor Roma who often become economic migrants elsewhere - but it also has Europe's largest group of Roma with secondary and tertiary education.) In some Member States, the Roma have become members of an urban underclass; in others, they are predominantly rural, living in segregated settlements; while only in a small minority, they are traditional travellers.

What, then, can the European Commission do to help?

At the risk of being somewhat schematic, we can say that there are five distinct approaches to Roma issues in Europe today - a laissez-faire approach; a repressive and security-focused one; one which is aims at social inclusion without taking ethnicity into account; one which, by contrast, emphasises ethnic identity politics; and finally one which allows for specific measures but aims for mainstream jobs, education and housing. The European Commission is in favour of the last mentioned approach which has shown its effectiveness in the Spanish example.

Since the so-called EU Roma Summit of September 2006, the Commission has been working with three successive Presidencies to get such general principles adopted at Community level. In April, under the Czech Presidency, the EU Platform for Roma Inclusion was established. The Czech Presidency, working closely with the Commission, proposed a list of Common Basic Principles of Roma Inclusion, which was then presented to the EPSCO Council. The Council took note of them and recommended them to the Member States. Thus, similarly to the Common Basic Principles on the Integration of Immigrants, we now do have a kind of a minimum common ground which the Member States can develop further - either individually, or in cooperation.

Given the aforementioned differences between Member States, we cannot go much further beyond these Basic Principles; there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to concrete policies. But perhaps in the next period the Commission could develop (in cooperation with the Member States, of course) something like the "pathways" for clusters of Member States in similar situation, just as we did in the area of flexicurity.

The Platform, which met for the second time under the Swedish Presidency, is intended as a predominantly inter-governmental process (with technical, analytical and financial support of the Commission, including the input of a loose network of independent experts with whom we cooperate) rather than as a new structure somewhere in the corridors of the Commission. This may make some of our stakeholders rather unhappy, but it is a conscious and responsible choice on part of the Commission. The Commission - unlike some other international bodies - has some powerful legal and financial instruments, and it is its obligation to use these powers which it has while not pretending to have others which it does not have. Thus, the Commission does NOT believe that it could be useful to create a little "Roma Office" somewhere in the EU apparatus, an office which would inevitably become the depository (if not the scapegoat) of all the wishes of stakeholders, without having the real legal and political responsibility for actual development on the ground.

On the other hand, the Commission believes that given the different experiences of Member States, there is (1) a good deal what they can learn from each other; (2) there is a need to keep the Roma issue in the foreground of the political agenda, through the commitment of successive Presidencies.

Although the Commission has no aim to create a "Roma strategy" separated from the major policy strands such as employment, social inclusion or education, it is increasingly aware of and committed to highlighting and focusing on the Roma within all of these policies. It must be said that the Commission is more aware of this than it was some five years ago, and it is more committed to focusing on the Roma within these policies than it used to be (there used to be an approach where "mainstreaming" was understood rather as "not mentioning the Roma explicitly"; this is no longer the case).

Please allow me to sum up that I am convinced that the European Commission is taking its new role in this respect very seriously - and will support Member States efforts at developing constructive, evidence-based policies aiming at Roma inclusion.

Thank you for your attention.

Jan Jarab is currently cabinet member of the EU Commissioner for Employment,Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities. He was commissioner for Human Rights of the Czech Republic.