Roma inclusion: Up to the majority

Profound lack of political accountability towards Roma constituencies plays into the hands of populist Roma politicians, writes Valeriu Nicolae. Real inclusion will happen only when majorities stop expecting Roma leaders to solve what is a majority problem: European anti-Gypsyism.

Discussions on the Roma at the European level are plagued by ambiguities, as is the very question of Roma identity itself. Roma are lumped together by national governments, intergovernmental institutions and civil society in a comfortable paradigm that blatantly contradicts the well-acknowledged fact that there are numerous groups of Roma that have very little in common with each other. A large number of Roma groups have very different traditions, languages, religions and lifestyles.

In what follows I examine other ambiguities and their damaging effect on the process of the social inclusion of Roma. I try to build an argument for a more responsible and accountable process of engaging in dialogue with Roma and a better representative system for Roma, one that will facilitate rather than inhibit social inclusion.

The language of ambiguity

The terminology used in European speeches, roundtables, conferences and papers such as “social inclusion”, “freedom”, “discrimination”, “empowerment”, “culture” and identity is both ambiguous and detrimental to the efficiency of processes meant to address exclusion and poverty. Even for experts in European jargon, the words can mean very different things to different people. The discrepancy in understanding becomes even more strident in discussions between Roma experts and intergovernmental institutions, and has almost no meaning or relevance for most of the Roma living in the European Union.

This lack of fundamental agreement over terminology used in policy papers results in a lack of rational debate among experts and inadequate understanding of the concept at the grassroots level. Even more important, there are no agreed indicators able to quantify any of the above concepts as they apply to Roma.

The end result is that when progress does happen it is unsustainable; it is largely accidental, not based on a rigorous process that relies on facts and reason, and lacks the broad support of any democratic consultation. Progress most often follows a crisis or a good – though profoundly non-democratic – decision taken by those non-Roma who determine Roma issues. Whenever these decisions require uncomfortable reforms from the Roma themselves, populist Roma politicians are quick to dismiss them as being illegitimate and taken against their advice, and do their utmost to thwart the proposals in question.

Accountability and the democratic process

There are serious problems of accountability when it comes to those taking decisions targeting Roma or Roma representation. Mainstream politicians from majority political parties simply cannot be accountable to Roma, since they are elected by non-Roma. A large majority of Europeans – well over 70 per cent – hold strong, negative stereotypes about the Roma. Any politician who takes a positive stand on the Roma, however mild, will lose their main support base. On the contrary, racist or hate speech against the Roma almost inevitably leads to an increase in electoral support.

The human rights approach favoured by civil society groups had considerable success in presenting the Roma as persecuted saints, a view that is in sharp contrast to a good part of the mainstream, which sees Roma as genetically determined criminals who should be isolated from the majority population. This societal fracture has been ignored or badly negotiated up to this point.

Any Roma representing the Roma is expected by both Roma and non-Roma to be “against” the majority populations. This is the inevitable result of the long history of strong European anti-Gypsyism and highlights the fact that, in the medium and long term, leaders representing the Roma will be forced to position themselves mainly against the decisions taken by the majority community and certainly against real social inclusion.

Roma leaders involved in decision-making must be accountable to the Roma. Yet the even stronger expectation of majorities that Roma politicians and civil society leaders are accountable towards them, the majorities, is largely ignored. In other words, majority populations hold Roma leaders accountable for solving what is, in fact, the problem of the majorities: their intractable prejudice against the Roma. Given the polarization of inter-ethnic relations this is hardly a constructive position for a leader truly seeking inclusion; but it is a goldmine for opportunist populists focused on their own political and economic ends. The few Roma political and civic leaders truly interested in social inclusion are constantly forced to negotiate extremely contradictory pressures.

I am not aware of a single important decision at the European level affecting the Roma that has been made by the Roma themselves or in consultation with their representatives. It follows, therefore, that the non-Roma are in the overwhelming majority of cases responsible for the decisions that directly affect the lives of Roma. Yet not one has ever felt the need to state or demonstrate their accountability to Roma communities; there is no de facto accountability. The situation is little different at the national level. Regardless of their actual effect, this makes most if not all of European decisions on the Roma profoundly undemocratic and illegitimate. Moreover, such decisions are vulnerable in the medium term and, in the long term, could lead to a crisis.

Role models and legitimacy

A small number of highly qualified Roma, usually from integrated or mixed families or with mixed families themselves, are mainly responsible for the success in making Roma discrimination a prominent issue at the European level. Under pressure from donors, majorities and inter-governmental institutions, these people have been forced to claim to represent Roma and to advocate reform of the most visible of the Roma – the so-called “traditional” Roma.

Given the multitude of Roma identities and communities, this concept of “traditional” Roma is itself highly ambiguous. It is generally false and stereotypical – an unfortunate creation of inter-governmental bodies and governments that was adopted by civil society. It often functions as a euphemism for Roma involved in petty criminality. “Traditional” Roma get the attention of the tabloid press in European capitals and are the target of racist rants by populist politicians all over Europe.

The need for legitimacy, in order to demonstrate that they are, indeed, “representative” or to access funds, forces the overwhelming majority of Roma human rights activists and politicians to make dangerous compromises. Such compromises lead to the promotion of unskilled but charismatic, “traditional” street-smart Roma into positions, where they prove to be detrimental to the social inclusion of Roma. The majority of these leaders work at the local level, though some, with help from well-intentioned and respected human rights activists, have been promoted to positions of power at the national level.

The effect of this situation is profoundly damaging. Instead of leading to reform within Roma communities – the adoption of positive role-models and inclusion – it has led to a significant erosion in the standards of the human rights approach of Roma civil society and an increase in anti-Gypsyism; majorities have seen in these leaders confirmations of their negative stereotypes. Professional Roma were quickly dismissed as non-representative exceptions or “non-traditional”.

Unskilled and incapable of bringing about a change within Roma communities, the “traditional” or non-human rights-based leadership has adopted a populist ethnic discourse using language that tends to exculpate Roma and incriminate the majorities for everything wrong within the Roma communities. Talk about child abuse, begging, domestic violence and petty criminality are quickly and ineptly dismissed as attacks against Roma culture. Most of these leaders are or have been involved in corruption scandals, or have links to criminal networks. In order to diffuse attention, they often accuse Roma human rights activists or Roma professionals of lacking links with traditional communities, destroying Romani identity and traditions, or representing the interests of the non-Roma.

The majority of Roma do not fit within the term “traditional” and there are significantly more mixed Roma than Roma living in isolated communities that could be considered traditional.

Moving forward

Political parties – national and European – should stimulate accountability on social inclusion and electoral competition among Roma politicians to represent and work for both Roma and majorities.

A number of reserved places for Roma within the mainstream political parties in countries where Roma represent more than 5 per cent of the population, voted into office by non-Roma and Roma together, could be the solution. This would increase pressure on the Roma leadership towards inclusion and avoid a disastrous escalation of the inter-ethnic divide. Roma politicians would be forced to adopt different political ideas (right, left, centre…) and compete to attract both Roma and non-Roma votes. Ethnic parties and inter-ethnic polarization should be discouraged by increasing the opportunity for Roma to be represented in mainstream politics.

Bureaucracies, too, need to do a much better job in attracting Roma employees and real experts on Roma issues. The present consultation mechanisms are dysfunctional and a serious review of the terminology used in discussing social inclusion is badly and urgently needed.

Civil society organizations need to be incentivized to start refocusing on an inclusive human rights approach rather than an exclusive ethnic one. Funders should encourage the involvement of Roma professionals who can function as positive role models for inclusion and refrain from focusing on “traditional” Roma.

Grassroots empowerment needs to be clearly defined and steered away from the idea of “traditional” communities. If mainstreaming and social inclusion are to work, it goes without saying that serious efforts to curb anti-Gypsyism must be put in place. Majority populations need to prove convincingly that they want Roma inclusion. So far, their failure to do so is glaringly obvious.

Published 24 February 2012
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Valeriu Nicolae Eurozine


Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.