Roma, Rights, and Radicals: A case for more, not less, Europe
BERLIN -- Rarely has an EU summit been as turbulent as the one on September 16. Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, charged France with mass deportations of Roma, violating EU law by, according to a leaked French government document, specifically targeting this group. A fierce dispute ensued between Reding, backed by European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who accused the Commission of overstepping its mandate. This spat is far from over. In the short term, France appears intent on continuing its controversial policy of sending Roma migrants back to their countries of origin in Central and Eastern Europe, claiming that they are not meeting France’s residency rules. The EU, in turn, may take legal action against France before the European Court of Justice. More broadly, the dispute raises issues about key European principles. And if the EU is to defend these principles, it should stick out this fight and protect Roma rights. How this dispute is resolved, in Brussels and in the national capitals, will leave its mark on Europe. The Roma are nationals of Bulgaria, Romania, and a half-dozen other EU countries. Their deportations violate their fundamental rights as citizens of the European Union -- the freedom of movement inside the EU, meaning the right to live, work, study, or retire in another country. No less important is the freedom to live free of discrimination on any grounds, including ethnicity. Both principles are clearly violated by the expulsion of Roma from France and, previously, from Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, among others. The European institutions, as guardians of EU law, are responsible for defending the fundamental rights of European citizens. In fact, one might ask why it took so long for the EU to speak up for the rights of the Roma. The Roma, estimated at 10-12 million people, are Europe’s largest minority, and also the one that is most politically and economically disenfranchised. Scattered mainly across the EU’s newest member states, they live in conditions of extreme poverty and segregation. Their situation has deteriorated over recent years as the economic crisis and growing xenophobia have exacerbated social tensions. This in itself presents a serious moral challenge to the EU and its member states. After all, one of the EU’s core values is solidarity. Should not this solidarity, invoked most recently by EU members in economic distress, extend to disenfranchised communities such as the Roma as well? The situation of the Roma is made even worse by the insistence of member states on the principle of subsidiarity. A safeguard against an omnipotent Brussels, subsidiarity places authority for dealing with a given issue at the lowest level -- typically the national level -- unless the scale or nature of the problem require European responses. However, the scale of the Roma problem is clearly too much for individual countries, regions, or municipalities to handle, particularly the new Eastern member states with their still-fragile institutions. At times, the simple lack of institutional capacity prevents action and effective use of EU funding to help the Roma. Sometimes, a broader bias against Roma causes inaction. Actors below the EU level need to acknowledge these limitations, and open up to Europe-wide action, coordinated and funded by the EU. The stand-off between the European Commission and France also plays to fears among smaller and newer EU members that the large West European countries dominate EU politics. These anxieties were rekindled by Sarkozy’s threat to veto Romania’s accession to the Schengen Area of visa-free travel, should the country fail to cooperate in receiving Roma deportees. It falls to the European Commission to take a stand against such bullying. Barroso and Reding must maintain a principled position on the Roma question, pursue proceedings against France--or any other country--if infringements of European principles and regulations continue. EU law should apply to all member countries and citizens. Even more disturbingly, the current Roma dispute reflects a growing influence of right-wing extremists on politics in Europe. These groups work hard to fan anxieties about the future, prosperity, migration, and cultural diversity among Europeans. Such issues have long been neglected by political elites. Under pressure by the Dutch Freedom Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, the Front National in France, or the Sweden Democrats, mainstream parties are trying to regain lost ground by shifting to the right. Sarkozy’s move against Roma migrants comes at a time when he is looking toward re-election in 2012. It is unlikely that this trend will easily find correctives in national politics. Instead, European institutions have to make clear that this political radicalization, and the search for scapegoats such as the Roma, are unacceptable. In all these respects, the current conflict questions the very foundations on which the EU was built. It is for Brussels now to take a decisive stance in defense of these European values, for the benefit of all Europeans--Roma and non-Roma alike. Joerg Forbrig is Senior Program Officer for Central and Eastern Europe and Astrid Ziebarth is a Program Officer for Immigration and Integration at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
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