A year and a half has passed since the European Commission adopted the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020, which calls upon EU governments to create comprehensive plans aimed at strengthening social inclusion and improving the well-being of their Romani citizens. The European Council endorsed the framework soon after. However, despite good intentions, little has changed.
In fact, the Roma’s suffering has increased as a result of the euro crisis, and intolerance has intensified, especially in the countries with the largest Romani populations — Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Greece. Despite the European Commission’s call for member states to apply more EU funds to programs aimed at integrating Roma before the close of the 2007 to 2013 EU budget period, none of these six countries has done so. Some of them — such as Bulgaria and Romania — are among the most laggard spenders of EU funds, particularly resources from the European Social Fund (ESF).
For example, Romania has received 4.5 billion euros (US$5.9 billion) from the ESF. However, the estimated 1.8 million Roma in the country — who struggle with pervasive unemployment, poor living conditions, low life expectancy and low rates of school attendance — have benefited very little from these funds. Indeed, in the sixth year of the current seven-year budget cycle, less than 10 percent of the funds have been used, and only a fraction of that for Roma.
The little that was set aside for Roma is now in jeopardy, given that the EU has suspended its ESF reimbursements to the Romanian government, owing to procedural shortcomings. As a result, the government is not reimbursing the nongovernmental organizations that are trying to implement programs aimed at helping Roma.
Circumstances are not much better elsewhere. The Bulgarian government is spending EU funds very slowly. And, in Hungary, spending slowed when the current government deemed the previous government’s programs deficient.
Adverse political incentives in Central and Eastern Europe are partly to blame for this situation. The prevailing view in these countries is that Roma prefer stealing and damaging others’ property to working; that they receive disproportionate and undeserved social benefits; and that they produce children in order to qualify for more public assistance.
Fearing short-term damage to their popularity, politicians — even those who understand the long-term implications of their failure to act — are wary of helping Roma. The problem is further exacerbated by a political culture in which public officials’ private interests trump genuine leadership. Indeed, the EU’s most corrupt member-state governments are those that need to do most for their Romani citizens.
In Hungary, the extreme-nationalist Jobbik party has been capitalizing on anti-Roma sentiment. Supported by roughly 15 percent of the population, the party had some success in the latest European Parliament elections, as well as in national and local polls. For example, last year, Jobbik’s candidate, Oszkar Juhasz, was elected mayor of Gyongyospata, where a radical paramilitary organization had staged patrols for two weeks in protest against “gypsy crime.” And, in October, Jobbik’s Erik Fulop won his second consecutive mayoral election in Tiszavasvari, the party’s proclaimed “capital city.”