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In defence of the EU Roma Strategy

In defence of the EU Roma Strategy

28 April 2011

Description: Zoltan Balog

Attempting to measure and coordinate member state programmes relating to inclusion, education, healthcare and housing is somewhat of an impossible task – but that is exactly what the new European Union Roma Strategy is attempting to do – writes Dean Carroll.

Already criticised for being too weak and vague to really make an impact, the initiative did not get off to the best of starts. So how does one of the architects of the strategy respond to the claims that it lacks clarity, funding and – most important of all – buy-in from European countries? Talking exclusively to, Hungarian Social Inclusion Minister Zoltán Balog bats away the naysayers.

“The Roma problem is something to be addressed by the EU and by member states,” he insists. “Some 80 per cent of the Roma in Europe live in former communist countries – like Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and the west Balkan states – and 80 per cent of Roma are EU citizens, so these people can of course move freely in Europe and visit other countries.

“This movement often happens because there is a very bad social situation in the home countries. At this point, it then becomes a European problem rather than a national problem because there can be misuse of the social care systems in other countries. What can we do with 10-12 million citizens ready to move on? Well, the Roma are often victims of human trafficking, prostitution and so on. I am not a good diplomat, but let me speak clearly – we need coordination at a European level and also some controls on member states when it comes to human rights and inclusion.”

Aside from the expulsions of thousands of Roma from France and Italy in recent years – contravening the Charter of Fundamental Rights – the ethnic group has been persecuted in almost every European country where its people have tried to settle. Camps have been fire-bombed, individuals have been attacked and killed and the economic crisis has triggered a rise in nationalism and racist sentiment across the EU – as recent election results have proved.

As a result, the EU Roma Strategy would seem destined to fail. Can it realistically address a problem that has been around for hundreds of years? Balog certainly believes so. He suggests too much money is either being wasted on ineffective initiatives or not being spent at all. In fact, only €100m of EU funds has so far been earmarked to improve Roma integration and 70 per cent of the money available to set up grassroots structures has not been used “There is so much money for integration through social, regional and development funds – to help the Roma and other disadvantaged groups,” says Balog. “My question is – where are the results from this funding because I cannot see that the Roma situation has changed?

“Nobody controls the activities of these programmes. The coordination and controls need to be in place. We have to prove the worth of the existing EU funds and ensure this money is being used effectively. Some countries don’t really use this money at all – Romania, for example, where only 18 per cent of the social funds are spent. It’s time to investigate. Only then can you ask for new resources.”

Official statistics show that life expectancy for the Roma is 10 years less than the EU average, which currently stand at 76 for men and 82 for women. Child mortality is five times higher and only a small number of Roma children actually complete primary school education. But how much EU funding is needed to make a significant impact when providing aid and support? Balog is reluctant to be drawn on the detail. He admits: “I am not so brave to make such an estimate. It’s a difficult question to answer as each member state is different in terms of the resources needed – whether it is Hungary, Spain or Romania. But, before further money is provided, we need better information and comparative data that shows what programmes have been effective where and when.”

But, surely, the money is better spent and focused at the ground level by those closest to the people in need – rather than coordinated by a remote supranational strategy? The minister insists that the key is connecting up the dots and each member states has been asked to provide an action plan by the end of the year. “The levels that are important are the grassroots, the national and the supranational because the Roma problem stretches across all three,” he stresses. “In Hungary, for example, the churches and the non-governmental organisations are very active. But without a clear line from the state, they cannot achieve success. In Hungary, we have good practices at the local level, but these cannot shape a strategy for the whole country. There is a real need for coordination between the governmental level, the grassroots and civic society.”

In recent years in Hungary, a number of Roma have been killed in racist attacks so it is not a completely positive picture in that particular member state. Balog acknowledges this, adding: “I admit that we have bad practice as well as good practice – we need to learn from both. We have had more than 200 years to tackle better Roma integration, but we are not there yet. I hope we will have better times in the future – through churches, NGOs and state employment programmes. We must learn from our mistakes and failures. If you give Roma people real chances in life, then they are not motivated to leave the country.

“In Hungary, we see this problem clearly every day and it is discussed at a high level. But in Romania, that is not the case. The tensions are always there – although, in some other countries there is no genuine sensitivity shown with regard to this problem. I hope that the controversial cases of people being expelled from France and Italy provide motivation for a coherent EU Roma Strategy – you know sometimes negative experiences can be useful in showing a different way forward. This is an issue not just for a handful of member states, but for the whole EU.”

Certainly, Balog is candid in his assessment of the current fragmented situation. “On one side, there is the question of human dignity and human rights – which means that the police and the authorities have to see only individuals before them and treat people that way rather than looking at their ethnicity,” he explains. “On the other side, there is the question of misuse of the freedom of travel and misuse of social care systems in other countries – which we have to try and stop at an EU level.

“The dangers of racism and nationalism exist across the whole of Europe. The question is – how strong are these ideologies and movements? We know from history that when the social positions of people worsen as a result of economic problems, these elements grow. That is the situation we are facing now in Hungary, and the wider EU, and it is time for us to create some effective solutions. With a clear strategy, people will get new hope.”

The strategy has also come under fire, though, for failing to get to grips with hate crime and ethnic profiling. The minister agrees that there is still work to be done. “We also have to speak about hate crime – for me, it’s also a cultural question; we all know the Roma problem, but we don’t know the people themselves or truly understand their culture,” he says. “We have to learn about their culture and they, also, have to learn about our culture.

“In Hungary, they have a double identity as Roma and as Hungarians. We have to strengthen this approach in order to live side by side and produce improved integration. There is also a problem with lack of language as most Roma children that go to school in Hungary cannot express themselves in Hungarian and so the educational achievement levels remain low. But it’s a problem of deep poverty and not only for the Roma population.”

Radical moves are being made towards education in Hungary, with a special school being created for the 6,000 elected representatives who communicate with government agencies on behalf of the Roma people and mediate internal conflicts. The “parallel self-representation” model adopted in Hungary could be rolled out elsewhere, where member states have large Roma populations – claims Balog.

“They can elect their own representatives at a local level, county level and nationally; it’s an important model for Europe,” he says. “We can improve the education and quality of life of the Roma people.” The next Hungarian elections, which will see the number of parliamentarians shrink to just 200, will also include some sort of power-sharing model to ensure that Roma are represented at the highest level.

Balog welcomes this, stating: “There is a possibility for minorities to become active in parliament – through the special system we will be adopting. We have four politicians – three in the government party – already elected, who are Roma, but they came through the party lists. It’s a long term problem for Hungarian democracy and we are now getting to grips with it.”

He lists the main successes of the Hungarian Presidency of the EU as the EU Roma framework, the strategy to boost the Danube region as well as movement towards supranational financial regulation and economic governance. It is clear, though, that Balog is unhappy with the way the more liberal members of the European club reacted to Hungary’s controversial media law changes. Expressing annoyance, he says: “If we are all part of the European family, then it is important to criticise other members of the family and to accept criticism – I have no problem with that.

“But the criticism from some countries and politicians was, perhaps, a little too much – on a level that wasn’t really acceptable. To question the credibility of democracy in Hungary is a strange thing to do. We do make mistakes, but we corrected this law after we spoke with the European Commission. Let us make a judgement on how the reforms have worked in five years from now; I think we will see good results from the legal changes we made.”

Finally, returning to the EU Roma Strategy, the minister suggests we are entering a historic period of major change and opportunity. “The influx of refugees from North Africa following the Arab spring and the Schengen dispute between France and Italy further makes clear the need for a coherent collective EU strategy on migrants,” he adds. “Freedom of movement is one of the biggest achievements of the EU and it is a real privilege for us in Hungary, after having lived in a communist country. The unity and integration of Europe is highly important. France and Italy will only work things out through cooperation via the EU.” Balog’s optimism is not in doubt. Whether the EU Roma Strategy will be a success, as he claims, is another matter. He is certainly a worthy champion for the cause.

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