Simon Garnett: The EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020, adopted in April 2011, calls on member states to introduce targeted measures to compensate for the disadvantages faced by Roma. What is your criticism of the way these strategies are currently operating?
Valeriu Nicolae: They aren’t strategies so much as wishful thinking. A strategy needs to have a budget, a time frame and an evaluation monitoring mechanism, and more importantly it needs to have a mechanism to implement it. You don’t have any mechanism of implementation at the level of the European Union. Then there is the absence of expertise. According to the numbers released by the DG Human Resources and Security, there are 339 people in senior management and 1163 in middle management of the European Commission. None of them are Roma or have informal or formal expertise on Roma issues. Since 1984 the Commission has been underlining in its papers that serious measures need to be taken to address Roma exclusion. But until 2009 not a single recognised Roma expert was employed by the European Commission to deal with Roma issues.
Today, according to the Commission, there are two Roma people working within the Commission’s premises in Brussels. One of them is employed on temporary basis and is very young, inexperienced and unknown to almost everybody involved in Roma issues. The Hungarian government provides the other one – a much more experienced person who works, however, in a fairly junior position with no executive power. There are no more than two other people in the entire Commission working on Roma issues that could be considered to have even moderate expertise. No Roma expert or Roma is among the 270 plus appointed experts in the cabinets of the Commissioners. Nor does the European Parliament employ in its permanent or temporary staff any Roma.
The European Commission estimates the number of Roma in Europe to be between eight and twelve million. Malta has a population of 417,608, according to the last census. It is the smallest country in the European Union and one of the last to join the EU. There are 152 Maltese employed by the European Commission and Maltese are well represented at high and mid-levels.
The Fundamental Rights Agency – the watchdog organization of the European Union – receives annually over 20 million euros. Over half of this budget goes on staff expenditure. In recent years it has released a number of studies on Roma (on racism, discrimination, women’s issues, violence) and a significant amount of resources has been directed towards Roma-related activities. Its director has been very clear about both the need for positive measures to help a better representation of Roma. The FRA employs around 80 people. It has an executive board of 7 and a scientific committee of 11. Not one of them is Roma. Among the 62 people in the ceremonial management board of the FRA, there is one Roma, appointed by the Slovak government.
These institutions call for others – be they national governments, local administrations or businesses – to demonstrate strategies that involve Roma in decision-making. Yet they themselves have no plans to attract Roma human resources or experts on Roma issues. At the national level it is the same: you have lots of people who, while not incompetent, have no practical experience with the Roma and who design the wrong kind of strategies without having an idea about what it’s all about.
SG: The Commission has declared that “now is the time to change good intentions into more concrete actions” when it comes to policies for integrating the Roma. How has the rhetoric diverged from the reality in the past?
VN: Around 400 million euros has been spent by the European Union on Roma issues over the last ten years. In the last six years there have been seven resolutions of the European Parliament focused on Roma – all underlining discrimination, abuse and exclusion of Roma. There have been two major European Roma Summits since 2008. The European Commission has organized a number of national Roma conferences in the last three years. These were by far the largest conferences on Roma issues and millions of euros were spent on their organization. At all these events, high and mid-level European officials strongly restated the need for Roma participation. This makes the Roma the most discussed ethnic group at the level of the European Union.
However most, if not all the intergovernmental institutions vocal about the need to do something about Roma exclusion would have serious problems proving that structural racism does not exist within them. Change must start from within these institutions that preach Roma inclusion. Otherwise the beautiful rhetoric about how discriminated, neglected, excluded and loved Roma are will sound like nothing more than hypocrisy.
And the rhetoric is beautiful: if you listen to Commissioner Viviane Redding she is amazing – she talks about how Roma need to be included, how they are discriminated against, and so on and so forth. But she should tell that to her own organization, where Roma are completely excluded. You hear the same thing from the director of the European Fundamental Rights Agency: Roma need to be included. Tell that to yourself! Then maybe something might happen at the FRA too.
So that’s the problem. At the moment what the EU institutions do is they act like NGOs. But I don’t expect the European Union and governments to be NGOs, I expect them to come up with plans: how are they going to do it, not what they dream about it. What you dream is not my problem. You are put there and paid from public money to do things, and if you are not capable of doing it then step down.
SG: You yourself worked in Brussels as an advisor but turned to social work in Bucharest in Roma ghettos. What made you shift the focus of your activities?
VN: I got bored with the rhetoric of Roma NGOs. Everybody else needs to do something. And I thought, OK, politicians are always complaining, lets see what I can do. Because, obviously, I can’t expect others to do something if I’m not doing it myself. I decided to give up working in Brussels and to do something that everyone told me was impossible: you can’t work in the ghetto, there’s too much drugs, prostitution, violence and so on. Rubbish! You can work in the ghetto and you can have real success. We have proved that. And we didn’t start with European money, we started with our own resources. Nobody wanted to fund us, everybody though we were crazy. And after we proved that it worked with our money we took funding conditioned on people coming and seeing what we do. Because I don’t need funding so I can say, hey, look what we did. This is the really terrible rhetoric of the European Commission: oh we have done so much for the Roma, we gave them 400 million in the last ten years. No: the European Commission doesn’t have money of its own. That’s public money.
This continues to be a problem: on one side you have the European institutions and the governments who don’t assume responsibilities in doing much, and on the other side you have an entire Roma civil society that is very unsuccessful in proving that they have an impact at the grassroots. This needs to be changed. There are a number of good examples of organizations that do that, but there aren’t enough of them. The majority of organizations at the moment are more interested in acting as diplomatic missions to the European Union on behalf of the Roma. I mean the system of dignitaries and privileges.
SG: Are you suggesting that a number of Roma leaders are more focused on their political careers than changing the situation on the ground?
VN: The majority, not a number! The existing Roma leadership seems to be focused only on that. I know very few examples of Roma leaders who are actually doing something. I mean something concrete besides talking and working hard being the leader.
The political parties should attract Roma. You should go into politics because of political ideas and not for your genes. That’s not happening. The political parties are doing abysmally in trying to get Roma involved and and promoting Roma leaders. On the other side, the existing Roma leadership prefers to be an ethnic leadership since that means no competition. It’s the easiest access to resources possible. “Look, I’m a Roma and it’s my right to be in politics” – it shouldn’t be like that.
SG: The European Commission states that affirmative action towards Roma does not contradict the principle of equal treatment. Are you in favour?
VN: Yes. The European Commission should have a very clear plan on recruiting minorities. There should be strong competition for the jobs, but you should have a number of places allocated to Roma, to Muslims, to whoever is in as terrible a position as we are at the moment. There are examples of member states working along these lines. But it is very hard for the European Commission to tell a member state it needs to introduce affirmative action for Roma when there are far fewer Roma in the Commission than in any of the member states’ governments with a significant Roma population. This is the case for Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Spain. How can the Commission tell Romania to recruit more Roma when in fact Roma are a lot better represented in the Romanian government than in the Commission itself?
SG: At the time of the scandal surrounding the deportation of Roma from France, you commented that Sarkozy was more or less ordering the Romanian government to take back these people. Are we seeing a recurrence of colonial superiority within the EU in Roma issues?
VN: Obviously. Can you imagine having a commissioner responsible for, lets say Muslims, who comes from the country known for being the most dramatically opposed to Muslims in Europe? Luxembourg is the country that is clearly the most restrictive towards Roma in Europe, while the commissioner responsible for Roma, Viviane Redding, is Luxembourgish. She was a member of the parliament between 1979 and ’89, at a time when Luxembourg had some really appalling policies on Roma. How can you have somebody responsible at this level when, as far as I know, she has never set foot in a Roma community? It is not a criticism of her personally; it’s a criticism of the system. You don’t appoint somebody to a position just because she’s influential, you appoint someone on the basis of expertise. She is commissioner on justice and citizenship, areas where I have no doubt she has expertise, but it’s obvious that when it comes to Roma she has no expertise whatsoever, nor is there anyone anywhere close to her who does.
SG: Can one talk about the rise of racism towards Roma without mentioning the economic upheavals in eastern Europe since 1989?
VN: Of course they are linked. There is absolutely no doubt that whenever economic pressure increases, xenophobia increases too. This is historically proven. In the case of Roma we see that clearly. Plus there is the migration phenomenon. Whenever the conditions get worse Roma tend to migrate. They have nothing to lose. If you’re living outdoors it doesn’t matter whether it’s in France or Romania. And in France if you beg you’ll make more money than by doing the same thing in Romania. Back at the beginning of the 1990s we had several generations of Roma with very good education, because the communist system obliged Roma to go to school. I am a product of that generation. Then, at the beginning of the 1990s, because Romania was so poor, there began a heavy emigration of Roma, principally to Germany. All these children were taken from school and moved with their families: they travelled around and never got an education. You now have a generation of parents with a very low level of education. That’s a generation lost.
Between 2000 and 2003 the Roma started coming back, meaning that their children stayed in Romania. So from 2002 and 2003 onwards the situation improved constantly. But since 2008 we again have migration and there’s a danger that we will lose another generation. If you’re enrolled in a school for half a year then you move – it doesn’t work. You have no education whatsoever. The only employment you can get is at the very, very lowest level. So you have an option: do I turn to crime, where I can be very successful, by breaking in and making piles of money and perhaps avoiding being caught? Or, do I struggle all my life, working at this very low level, because I don’t have the education to do anything else? There is a good number who will choose the illegal alternative. That’s the danger: that we lose another generation because we were completely incapable of doing anything for the last twenty years. We just talked, always looking elsewhere for solutions, always expecting others to do things we could have done ourselves. And I’m referring here to the European Commission, the European Parliament, the UN, the Council of Europe, the World Bank as well as us the Roma activists.
SG: Of course crime creates a vicious cycle. If you’ve got a small community consisting of Roma and non-Roma, in rural areas with a huge degree of poverty, it’s a self-perpetuating phenomenon…
VN: Yes it is. You have a huge problem there that isn’t addressed. The idiocy of all this is that it isn’t only the policies of the European Union that are wrong, but also the attitude of the majority of NGOs. The main problem is this: anti-Gypsyism grows because of the way criminality issues connected with the Roma are portrayed. It doesn’t grow because you don’t have access to healthcare. That’s the issue. So let’s talk about criminality. We need to solve anti-Gypsyism and we need to solve the problems that lead to anti-Gypsyism. You can’t solve one while completely ignoring the other. The disease is the stupidity of political correctness, because at the moment the European Union invests all its money in access to healthcare, access to education, access to housing, and ignores the fact that you need to have responsible families who know that you need to have access to healthcare, that you need to get employment, that education is very important.
We don’t insist at all on citizenship and responsibilities. As a Roma, if I am living in Romania I have a responsibility as a Romanian citizen. That responsibility is the same as that of all other Romanians. And as a Romanian citizen I have a responsibility both to respect the law and also to make sure that I am not a racist and do not condone racism. We don’t talk about the responsibilities of European citizenship, we just talk about the benefits. You can complain as a Roma that you are discriminated against the whole time, and expect to receive compensation for your dead relatives in the Holocaust, but at the same time find very easy ways to do other things, to be economically viable, to abuse your children to beg, live on the edge of criminality. This is an important issue and we don’t talk about what the issues are in reality. We’re always beating around the bush.
SG: What do you tell people when they confront you with these life-altering decisions? Do I live legally or do I commit crime, do I migrate, do I stay where I am?
VN: I would take the children to a prison in a prison vehicle and show them what it’s like. You can choose this, or you can choose the other alternative, where you can be very successful. There are lots of opportunities for Roma who are well educated, and you can live a life that is absolutely normal and can be very rewarding. I show them what the alternatives are. It’s their choice. I say to them: we are responsible, we treat you with lots of respect, you need to show us the same amount of respect and responsibility. Otherwise we don’t work together. Up to now we’ve had, out of 187 children, just two dropouts. If you show them what it’s all about they understand. I tell you, some of my children are a lot harder working and competitive than other children because they see that this is their solution. I have children who tell me the police came and broke down their door and looked for drugs, as if it was just another daily occurrence. They make jokes about the policemen, we fought with them, they say. It’s so normal in their lives. Prison is also normal. All of this is life. But most of those in charge of designing policies for social inclusion are unaware of it.
This interview took place in Berlin on 11.11.2011, during the symposium “Was heisst denn hier Zigeuner? Bild und Selbstbild von Europas grösster Minderheit”, organized by the Allianz Kulturstiftung within the series “Reden über Europa 2011”. Valeriu Nicolae’s book, We are the Roma! One Thousand Years of Discrimination is published by Seagull Books in 2012.