Social investment is key to overcoming the inclusion impasse

Roma integration strategies in the EU have not been particularly successful. However, the European Commission […]

FEPS Secretary General

Roma integration strategies in the EU have not been particularly successful. However, the European Commission is right to relaunch an overhaul of this policy more than one decade after the first edition. To succeed, the integration strategies must be coupled with measures that combat inequality and promote social investment.

One consequence of the Eastern EU enlargement on social policy was the need and opportunity to create a common strategy for Roma integration. This however had to be done without creating the illusion that the EU institutions in Brussels could or would deliver what was needed without – or even instead of – the governments of the member states, especially of the countries of East-Central Europe and the Balkans.

When the European Commission (of which I was a member, working on this policy, among many others) introduced the EU framework for national Roma integration strategies in 2011, the aim was to make ‘tangible’ improvements in the lives of some the continent’s most disadvantaged citizens. The latest survey by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) shows that this has not happened for four in five Roma people living at risk of poverty today. Since a new strategy leading up to 2030 is now in place, it is worth reflecting on the first ten years of the EU’s only ethnic policy.

Roma integration represents an unusual challenge for the EU as it demands simultaneous and combined social policy interventions in a broad range of areas – employment, education, health, housing, and anti-discrimination – with explicit ethnic targeting and data collection. By turning Roma integration into a common policy, the EU has responded to various political issues arising within member states and which are rooted in the impoverishment and discrimination arising from post-communist transition and its impact on migration within the enlarged EU. 

However, by the very fact of adopting a specific policy, the EU has, in turn, also become an active player in constructing ‘Roma’ as a racialised political identity and policy object. The EU’s inclusive approach has brought together various different communities into the broader category ‘Roma’. The new Roma Strategy was justified because the EU is now the main driver of Roma policy. Without this policy, as a matter of fact, there would be fewer initiatives within the concerned member states.

While the recognition of Roma and associated groups is undoubtedly an advance of the historical neglect or marginalisation of those communities, the disappointing findings of the latest FRA Roma survey show that recognition is certainly a condition, but not a sufficient one, for improving the living conditions and life chances of those considered to be Roma. Indeed, the disconnect between the two actually creates new problems, as presenting Roma as a distinct ethnic/racial group without reducing inequality at the same time, appears to reinforce prejudices and perceptions of Roma people as a peculiarly problematic part of European society. Regarding the relationship between public institutions and racism, it is also disconcerting that the EU has a discourse and governance structure for one particular ethnic minority, the main effect of which seems to be to consolidate, rather than reduce, that group’s disadvantages and exclusion. 

Improving the lives of Roma people is predicated on transparency of commitments, good practice exchange and encouragement to use EU funds. The original Roma integration strategy has greatly increased the EC’s monitoring capacity through a large number of targets, to be tested against the Roma-specific data which are by the FRA. However, the last ten years have shown that this upward accountability in itself does not lead to effective action by national governments.

The fundamental problem lies in the weakness of Roma as a political interest group within member states. The communities considered Roma are highly diverse. In many (North-)Western EU countries they only count for a tiny part of the electorate, and policy is often focused on connecting mobile populations to mainstream services. In the south, numerically larger Roma populations often lead segregated lives in camps or slums. In many eastern states, Roma are still a small minority of voters and can present a challenge to the nation-state’s identity. Though there are many successful Roma people, who might as well act as advocates or ambassadors of genuine integration, overall, Roma minorities themselves lack the capacity and tools to exercise effective influence on local and national authorities to achieve the scale of investment needed to ensure equality of opportunity. 

Racism towards Roma has been part of European cultures and societies for centuries. However, it is complacent to imagine that racism is just the legacy of an unfortunate past and ignore the impact that contemporary politics has in reproducing prejudice and discrimination today. The risk is that by promoting the idea of a distinct Roma identity, without reducing inequality, the EU inadvertently deepens racialised social division. Roma have long been a favourite target of far-right and ultra-nationalist parties and, increasingly, centre-right parties show their willingness to mobilise exclusionary attitudes and to make tacit alliances with racist, anti-European political forces. It should be noted that the EU countries with most Roma citizens have experienced dynamic growth since joining the EU, but without coupling social convergence with economic one. The continuing exclusion of Roma partly explains the existence of this gap.

The fight against racism and the struggle for inclusion and equality must place across society and at every level of government. The EU Roma integration strategy provides a framework for this, but the ethnicity-oriented discourse without a dedicated investment capacity to overcome Roma’s weakness, marginalisation and segregation cannot achieve the stated goal of integration. Instead, it perpetuates division and exclusion. Having stepped up social investment capacity before and during the pandemic, it is now within reach for the EU to allocate sufficient funds to the most disadvantaged areas and thus facilitate the convergence of social conditions, with a particular focus on racial equality. 

Progressive political parties have a critical role to play within this policy paradigm, both within their home countries, and at the EU level, by protecting the integrity of this newly defined policy field. It is not just a question of giving more support to Roma representatives, but of framing and leading on how the rights and needs of citizens of Roma identity are integrated into the broader social, economic and political debates and decisions about the quality of public services, access to training and employment, climate change adaptation and social cohesion. Though circumstances and needs vary widely across Europe, progressives cannot shy away from making the case for Roma inclusion. This debate can be won, and it must be won within each member state.

Photo credits: Bell

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