by Yaron Matras
The EU began to take an interest in Roma when Western countries felt threatened by Roma migrations. The century-old fear of an influx of Gypsies became packaged as a concern for their human rights. Now we have an EU mechanism of sorts and an ideology to go with it: Alongside a manifesto on preventing discrimination and facilitating employment, housing, and education, the EU Council recommendation from December 2013 calls attention to Roma as a threat to others — by asking for transnational coordination to control Roma migration; and to themselves — by foregrounding issues of child trafficking, safeguarding and forced marriage. Reminiscent of Emperor Joseph II’s edict on the Regulation of the Gypsies from 1782, the EU wants Roma to be productive citizens, but it also wants to continue to contain their movements and to pathologise their culture.
Member states responded to the EU’s call for National Strategies with an array of evasive statements. But most notable of all is the failure to agree on a definition of the target group. For some they are citizens and thus indistinguishable from the majority; for others they are migrants and so one of many groups of alien nationals. Some define them as the poor and socially deprived; others as those who own a caravan and take to the road on a seasonal basis (but remain distinct from the majority ethnicity who spend a holiday on a trailer park). The phrase that Eurocrats set and many post-modernist scholars repeat is that ‘Roma’ is merely a ‘generic cover term’. European policy on Roma has become a kind of politically correct license to continue to conceptualise ‘Gypsies’ as a lifestyle rather than an ethnic minority.
Now, there are several governments that have not subscribed to the National Strategy pact. One in particular has recently come under criticism from lobbyists. One might view the UK’s position on this issue as part of an overall distant stance toward Europe. But at least within the UK civil service, it is not general reluctance to participate in European enterprises that drives the sceptical approach to Roma Integration Strategies, but a feeling that a well-established practice in the UK makes the new programme redundant. The UK, it is argued, prides itself in a whole range of good practice examples for social inclusion. A heavy hand against discrimination coupled with a gentle touch to support multiculturalism, they say, does the trick.
Surely, there are issues. The Dale Farm evictions in 2011 highlighted the structural desperation of Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller population. Despite many years of dedicated support by a special Traveller Education Service, segregation remains a problem in education. A government-backed Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an annual event that celebrates these minorities and their cultures, but it continues to confuse both outsiders and community members in insisting that all those considered ‘nomads’ must have a shared heritage. Roma migrants in Britain have regular access to housing, health care and education, more so than in most western countries. Yet we saw quite a bit of scaremongering in the aftermath of the release of a report by researchers at Salford in 2013 that tried to inflate the number of Roma in order to make a case for more funding for the voluntary sector.
The question is, could all these issues be resolved or even alleviated by getting the UK government to adopt a National Roma Integration Strategy? While the ultimate answer is anybody’s guess, we do, with the benefit of two years’ hindsight, now have at a least a germ of experimental conditions to be able to form an assessment: We can compare the situation in those countries that do have a strategy, with those that don’t.
The EU’s report from April 2014 on the implementation of the Strategies provides curious reading in that respect. Many examples of progress are provided, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any of them are directly linked to a National Strategy. To cite just one example in my own area of expertise, Romania is highlighted as having introduced a programme to train Romani language teachers. But this programme has been in place since the early 1990s. To cite another, the use of Roma mediators in various countries is praised; but this is largely the work of the Council of Europe’s Romed project, inspired by, but structurally independent of the Strategies.
So in effect, the EU’s National Strategies have so far been nothing but a reporting mechanism. It is open to reports on any activities that target Roma, whether new or well established. Effectively, it’s about raising awareness and entering into discussions, being able to praise good practice and to name and shame those who are lagging behind. In that respect, as long as a member state files its report, it doesn’t matter whether it formally has a National Strategy or not. The UK’s examples of good practice are just as valid as those of other countries, and its policy flaws are just as serious as those of others.
So who cares about National Strategies? The EU report from April 2014 bitterly complains that EU money is available that is not being claimed by the states to support Roma. It literally begs governments to beg for more money. This has caught the attention of third sector agencies in the UK who are keen to play a role in filling the gaps that austerity has created in local authority resources. Money for Roma, whether needed or not, will help them secure their jobs. A commitment by the government to National Strategies, they believe, could be cashed in the form of massive grants to help them run their networks and operations. To that end, they need to show an urgent need to expand their support measures: a huge influx of Roma, hitherto undetected, or a risk of children going missing without parental care. For this they need evidence, and so they try to enlist experts to support their cause. Academics should reflect carefully before lending their name to such an exercise.
Yaron Matras is coordinator of the MigRom project and author of ‘I met lucky people: The story of the Romani Gypsies’