Likewise, last June in Baia Mare, Romania, Mayor Catalin Chereches won re-election with more than 85 percent of the vote on a promise to eliminate the town’s “pockets of poverty” — or, more accurately, to demolish Romani neighborhoods. The city had already captured the world’s attention when it erected a 2m wall to isolate a particularly poor Romani community of roughly 2,000 people from its neighbors, effectively creating a ghetto.
Such actions reflect a dangerous trend toward physical exclusion. Under communism, significant efforts were made to assimilate Roma; they were given jobs, albeit at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and were assured housing. With post-communist restructuring, this modest status evaporated. Their diminished social status, combined with openly discriminatory hiring policies by private companies, resulted in the Roma’s rapid re-isolation.
To reverse this trend, Western European countries, too, must take responsibility. After all, it was France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2010 ordered the expulsion of illegal Roma and the demolition of their camps — triggering the human rights response that stimulated the EU to strengthen its calls for investment in Roma integration.
The European Commission, despite its flaws, remains the Roma’s greatest institutional hope. Given the existing framework’s lack of impact, a stronger set of recommendations for member states is being discussed. EU-level action must become more systematic and consequential, so that the European Commission can exert a greater influence on member states.
In particular, the traditional disbursement mechanisms for cohesion funds must be reassessed in countries where the state bureaucracy is unable to administer them effectively. Cutting the post-2013 EU budget, thus reducing the funds allocated for cohesion policy, is not the answer.
Furthermore, communication between EU bureaucrats and Romani nongovernmental organization leaders must improve, so that they can work together to change social policies in EU countries that ignore or harm not only Roma, but all of their poor citizens. To this end, the European Commission must improve oversight of the expenditure (and non-expenditure) of EU funds, and civil-society groups must learn how to lobby, rather than simply air grievances.
Isolation of and discrimination against Roma not only undermines European values; it threatens to unravel the social fabric in Europe’s new democracies. With support from civil society, the European Commission remains the agent of change that can and must lead EU members toward a future in which all citizens have the opportunity to improve their lives. The time has come for Europe to get serious about systematically solving the centuries-old problem of Roma exclusion.
Kalman Mizsei is chairman of the Board of the Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma program of the Open Society Foundations.
Copyright: Project Syndicate