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Discrimination, social exclusion, and harassment with no end in sight: why EU strategic integration frameworks are failing to protect the rights of Roma people

Kit Rooney, MSc Public Policy, School of Social & Political Science, University of Edinburgh

The Roma are the largest minority within Europe, and face what has often been described as the ‘last acceptable form of racism’.  Roma people regularly experience forced expulsion from housing, segregation within schools, are routinely denied access to labour markets, and are subjected to verbal and physical attacks. It is this reality that led to the creation of the 2011-2020 EU Roma Inclusion Framework to address both social and economic inequalities. This attempt was unsuccessful, with the European Commission acknowledging ‘persistent failings’ across its implementation. The following critique of the previous and current inclusion frameworks chronicles the problematic relationship between the EU and Roma, demonstrating where flawed policy design has perpetuated systemic inequalities as opposed to addressing them.

Understanding terminology

The use of the term ‘Roma’ by the EU is a drastic oversimplification. This is an umbrella term, used to refer to various groups (e.g., Roma, Sinti, Ashkali among others) as well as people who may identify as Gypsies, Showpeople, or Irish Travellers. The use of this definition is representative of the EU’s fundamental misunderstanding of the complexity of these communities; policymakers have imposed a shared identity on a group that spans countries, cultures, and languages to operationalise terminology. By using a flawed definition, the EU risks applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach to all who fall into this broad classification, when in actuality for many, the only the only unifying experience that can be agreed upon across communities defined as ‘Roma’ is the experience of Antigypsyism.

Weak foundations

Roma peoples and their experiences of discrimination were first identified as an area of concern for the EU during the eastward expansion. However, this concern was not rooted in the belief that Roma should enjoy equal rights, rather a fear that should Central and Eastern European (CEE) states become members, their Roma populations would migrate westwards to seek better standards of living. Initial actions directed towards improving the quality of life of Roma in CEE countries, such as the introduction of PHARE funds, was seen as a way of reducing ‘push factors’ in an effort to discourage migration. The EU’s early policies which impacted Roma communities were thus considered to be a front, concealing their actual aim of excluding them from western nations.

Barriers to implementation

As part of the implementation of inclusion policies, the EU requires each member state to submit their own specific National Roma Strategic Framework, and progress reports. Unfortunately, enforcement of this requirement is an obstacle, as the 2023 Assessment Report shows. Only eight member states have included all suggested common features in their frameworks, with twelve others choosing to exclude clearly defined budgets for implementation and monitoring. With no power to enforce these measures, the EU will continue to struggle to see any tangible improvement for the Roma, consigned to its role as coordinator.

Where are the Roma voices?

Exclusion extends to the creation of the EU Roma Frameworks, with limited evidence of Roma contributions in the steering and formation stages. The 2011-2020 framework was based on recommendations made by a group of academics from the London School of Economics   and has been criticised for its ‘eclectic’ selection of issues facing the Roma population and its fundamental failure to include mechanisms to allow for Roma participation. Despite the identification of these failures, no tangible improvements have been made to the 2020-2030 version, beyond acknowledging this requirement. Recommendations that National Roma Contact Points receive additional funding and staffing were ignored, and no fundamental alterations could be found regarding the input of Roma voices at national or EU level. We can thus see further evidence that the discrimination that Roma face is built in to even one of the largest political and economic unions in the world, which claims that all citizens are protected under the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Looking ahead

Ultimately, the EU itself is complicit in the exclusion of Roma peoples, with even its initial engagement with Roma inclusion as a social policy issue arising out of the prejudices of western nations fearing Roma immigration. A limited understanding of the complex breadth of identities found within the Roma communities has meant that policies will continue to lack traction and engagement from relevant communities, an issue which can only be solved by fundamentally reimagining how Roma voices are included at local, national, and supranational policy levels.