Commentary on the plans for a European Roma Institute

by Martin Kovats

I am glad that supporters of the ERI have shared their thoughts and developed the debate. Many people want change and the ERI is a new initiative. But hopes and wishful thinking are insufficient and there must be a role for critical analysis. I expect that many people who support the ERI do so because of its noble aspirations to fight prejudice and discrimination and want to believe that the ERI can deliver. The goal is so vast that it is not a question if the ERI can eliminate prejudice and create a ‘positive’ Roma image, but whether it makes a useful contribution. Therefore, we need to consider whether there any reasons to think that the ERI would do more harm than good.

In my view this is an important debate, not because of how a small  organisation might directly affect the few individuals and organisations who have any interest in it, but because of what it represents at a time of emerging Roma politics. Roma has become a political object (identity) and this will remain the case and have a profound impact on many countries and across Europe in the years and decades ahead. A key feature of this politics is the participation of Roma people in public debate – Roma activism. Despite being the far weaker partner in the relationship with mainstream institutions – states, NGOs, international organisations – the political ideas and actions of Roma activists are important in how the politics of Roma plays out. I appreciate that Roma activists need to explore every opportunity – and the ERI is precisely that, the provision of resources and status by OSF and the Council of Europe– but judgement is required as being easily led is likely to result in strategic mistakes with tragic consequences.

One area of concern is the thinking underpinning the ERI and what this implies for the quality and motivation of its work in its complex and serious subject area. In all three proposal or consultation papers (May 2014, October 2014, May 2015), the ERI has been justified as a crucial means for tackling the newly discovered Roma problem of ‘low self-esteem’ (it is defined as a problem and is explicitly attributed to Roma). Zeljko Jovanovic (8 May 2015) has elaborated on this concept explaining that ‘antigypsyism is not only in the non-Roma mindset, but in the Roma mindset too ‘.  Putting to one side how meaningful it can be to apply what definitively relates to individuals to a diffuse and vaguely defined population of millions, it is clear that low self-esteem is a disadvantage that lies within Roma people.

As the December paper discussed, this is a serious problem  because ‘Improve[d] Roma self-perception [is] a prerequisite for empowerment and participation’  and ‘genuine participation of Europeans of Roma origin “is a precondition for success”’ in ending the ‘widespread economic and social marginalisation of Roma communities in Europe’. The ERI is being called into being to tackle this fundamental problem and to institutionalise the belief that people considered Roma can’t expect better treatment from states and societies until they show a bit more self-respect! This train of thought is less an example of clumsy drafting than illustrative of  the value of a critical analysis which points to how politicisation (and bureaucratisation) also pathologicalises Roma identity with the aim of managing (maintaining), rather than overcoming objective problems of poverty and exclusion.

Another example is the unambiguous claim that social inclusion initiatives have proved ineffectual because they have not tackled the ‘root causes that stand in the way of meaningful progress: ignorance, hatred and mistrust’. This is, to say the least, a great simplification of a complex issue. What makes people think and feel the way they do? Aren’t ‘ignorance, hatred and mistrust’ more likely to be symptomatic of social and economic relations than their ‘root cause’?

This oddly restrictive approach to understanding very real issues regarding experiences and perceptions of Roma identity and people is less an intellectual proposition than an ideological one. In making the ‘root causes’ of poverty, exclusion and discrimination (as well as of multimillion euro policy failure) matters of the mind, no consideration need be given to the structural and systemic factors that many of us believe play an important role in how Roma is understood. The system is fine, just the people that are wrong. They think wrong thoughts about Roma. Furthermore, it is suggested that these wrong thoughts are essentially a legacy from the past (rather than generated within contemporary society). What is required is re-education or at least some good PR – the promotion of a ‘positive image’. This neo-liberal ideology may be the answer, but there is no reason to think so. More than two decades of promoting Roma difference while failing to overcome the social and economic inequalities created at transition have not obviously improved the safety or social standing of those labelled Roma.

The debate about the ERI has included concerns from academics that it would undermine the reputation of scholarly-level research. In respect of the ERI’s own work, how that is assessed will depend on who is judging. In the ERI’s case there are likely to be many different audiences, yet surely among the most important would be the ERI’s financial and political sponsors.  The way the ERI has been presented to date indicates that the ERI is likely to retard the development of more sophisticated critiques and effective interventions to combat anti-Roma racism. Rather than at the European level, it would be better to invest in national networks for studying the reasons for and challenging prejudice and discrimination in the states and societies where Roma people live.

While its ideology may lead to the ERI having a harmful impact on the theory and practice of the fight against hostility towards Roma, it could more prosaically damage perceptions of Roma by failing as an organisation. Corruption and dishonesty, notably through the misuse of monies is not unknown and has damaged the reputation of Roma activists and activism. There is no reason to believe that the ERI will be corrupt, but it has some common risk factors such as dependence on limited sources of external funding and ambiguity of method and mission. More broadly, the ERI maintains a basic weakness of many Roma organisations in lack of accountability to those in whose name it acts.

Factionalism is another  way in which the ERI could contribute to a negative perception of Roma political claims. Donor dependence and absence of popular support make Roma organisations easy to manipulate so that they serve the interests of their masters more than Roma people. One has to admire the brass neck of those who claim the ERI is some watershed in Roma control, when not only are there already  many organisations run by Roma people, but also because this is so obviously not the case for the ERI, which will be entirely dependent on meeting the expectations of its sponsors. The proposed ERI appears to conform to rather than challenge the long historical tradition of imposing compliant Roma leaders on communities to maintain the status quo.

Another area of concern is the ERI’s contribution to nationalism. This is a difficult issue as so much of Roma politics is rooted in the idea of bringing Roma together in one politically recognisable entity, a political community regardless of how loosely integrated. With its mission to showcase Roma culture and create a positive public image for Roma, the ERI will inevitably have to confront the question of who and what is or isn’t Roma. Of course, the ERI would not have a monopoly on these matters, though its distinguished status derived from its relationship with the Council of Europe would affect its influence. Yet, this status links it to a particular conception of Roma, an explicitly political conception that most vaguely and inclusively defines Roma, which has been most influentially promoted by the Council of Europe (as it provides unique governance opportunities).

The political role of the ERI is underlined by its policy analysis and advice role and though one would expect that the ERI would defend its main sponsor’s vision of who the Roma are, so it is worth considering whether the construction of an administratively convenient EuRoma nation is really a good idea and even harmful to Roma people? Nationalism has both progressive and regressive characteristics and the claim that people deemed to be Roma belong to their own political community has  different significance across Europe. In some countries there is widespread dislike of ‘the Roma’ and regular politicised hostility, not only from the far right. The institutionalisation of the EuRoma nation would not necessarily empower Roma people in their national and local struggles, but would certainly provide an ideological legitimacy to their exclusion.

As well as providing the cultural narrative to the EuRoma nation, the ERI would also contribute to exclusion through the creation of Roma political institutions. Admittedly, the Council of Europe has sponsored the ERTF since 2004, and its coincidental spurning of the aspirationally democratic ERTF for the unashamedly elitist ERI tells its own story. The issue with the ERI is also timing. Since 2011 the EU has sought to clarify the relationship between the European and national level by emphasising the responsibility of Member States for the treatment of their Roma citizens. The role of European intuitions is to facilitate and support, but not to deliver or take responsibility. There are many faults with the EU Roma Framework, but its fundamental idea of focusing on national action and accountability is profoundly important. Yet the ERI directly contradicts this principle, institutionalising European level Roma governance. I am not so much concerned with the specific impact of the ERI itself, but that it sets a precedent for the proliferation of European Roma intuitions into the future.

I appreciate that many people have high hopes of European influence on domestic Roma institutions, but I believe that European Roma governance will not work, indeed that it can be understood as a displacement activity. The EU has recognised that all the changes that need to occur to improve the lives and opportunities of Roma people have to take place within national states and societies, be initiated,  undertaken, legislated for or regulated by domestic authorities and socially and culturally embedded in the communities in which Roma people live. Anything at the European level can only be a means to the end of national reform. European Roma governance misdirects attention (Roma activism) to where power isn’t and away from where it should be focussed.

The most fundamental risk inherent in the whole politicisation of Roma identity is that raising the political profile of Roma without effectively addressing the associated social problems leads to increased hostility towards Roma people and identity. Unfortunately  there is a tendency towards this as it is much easier and cheaper to integrate Roma identity into public discourse than to drive through economic and institutional reform.  It is worth considering why the Council of Europe’s Secretariat is so keen to create a separate Roma institution on behalf of a body that is  led by minsters from national governments and overseen by parliamentarians of national legislatures i.e. precisely those who have the political power and means to advocate for and implement domestic reforms, but who seem to be conspicuously unable to achieve much progress when it comes to improving the living standards and life chances of so many of the people they label as Roma.

As currently proposed the ERI would be an elitist neoliberal institution that further promotes a convenient symbolic politics at the expense of one based on realising the rights Roma people already have as citizens.


For the documents referred to in the text you can consult our Chronology

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