The Progressive Post

The EU Roma policy – Backgrounds and functioning

The EU's direct involvement with policy specifically directed towards Roma was a response to change political conditions arising from eastward enlargement.


The EU’s direct involvement with policy specifically directed towards Roma was a response to change political conditions arising from eastward enlargement. The postcommunist transition had a devastating effect on Roma communities in Central and South Eastern Europe, wiping out the gains of two decades of integration policies, producing high levels of unemployment, poverty and exclusion which remain to this day. Roma also became targets of nationalist politics (such a denial of citizenship in the Czech Republic), racism (including pogroms and murders) and discrimination.

During the accession process, candidate countries were required to set out a process for addressing Roma issues. These processes built on actions already being taken by national governments across the region. However, the main driver for bringing together Roma policies on a transnational basis was the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015), an initiative of the World Bank and George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

The EU also become embroiled in concerns about the migration of Roma from east to west, initially as asylum seekers and then as workers. Notably, the Berlusconi government declared a ‘Nomad Emergency’ in 2008. The first Barroso Commission organised the initial European Roma Platform and published ten Common Basic Principles for Roma inclusion. However, it was not until a public row between the Commissioner for Justice, Vivienne Redding, and the French government over the discriminatory treatment of Roma EU citizens that the Commission committed to a comprehensive approach towards Roma.

The EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020 was launched in 2011, requesting all Member States to come up with a national plans for delivering improvement, known as National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS). To make the Framework relevant across the EU, the EC adopted a very broad definition of who should be considered Roma, including not only east Europeans or Romani speakers, but also indigenous western communities such as Spanish Gitanos, UK Gypsies and Scottish as well as Irish Travellers. The target group was further enlarged due to the objections of some Member States (notably France and Germany), to a specific ethnic policy so allowing NRISs to include actions for addressing the needs of other vulnerable groups too.

The NRISs focus on four policy areas: education, employment, housing, and health. Due to the lack of comparable baseline data only one specific target was set: to ensure that all Roma children complete at least primary school. The other targets were to reduce the gap between Roma and the rest of the population. Each Member State government has a National Roma Contact Point to oversee the delivery of its NRIS and to work with the EC, which includes the take up of social funds, access to which became conditional on having an NRIS. The EC reports annually on the Framework and organises biannual European Roma Platforms for stakeholders.

EU Commitment

The Commission is not the only EU institution involved with Roma. The Framework is supported by a 2013 Council Recommendation which provides ‘guidance to Member States in enhancing the effectiveness of their measures to achieve Roma integration and strengthen the implementation of their national Roma integration strategies’. The European Parliament has taken an active interest. As well as debating the EC’s annual report on the Framework, it has adopted more than half a dozen Resolutions since 2011. Other institutions engaging with Roma policy issues include the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Fundamental Rights Agency, the Court of Auditors and the European Court of Justice.

In putting Roma on its agenda and into its workstreams, the EU institutions have integrated Roma issues into their own operations, allowing for them to be discussed across the bloc. At the same time, the EU (primarily through the Framework), has integrated all explicit Roma policy actions across Europe (including candidate countries) in a specific, ethnic governance structure overseen by the Commission. 

The EU’s role on Roma is more than the sum of its social policy parts. In its politicisation of a Roma identity, the EU endorses a particular ethnographic and ideological vision of a unique transnational ethnic minority that requires special, transnational political management. The symbolic significance of this conception of Roma for the European project is also seen in the formal celebration of International Roma day (April 8) and the marking of European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day (2 August).

Two main ways have been used to quantify the impact of EU Roma policy: compliance with the Framework (production of NRIS), and a vaguely worded ‘tangible improvement’ in the circumstances of Roma people, in other words: closing the gap between Roma and the rest of each country’s population. In terms of the former, it has been very successful, ensuring that Roma are explicitly included in governmental agendas across the EU. In most of its annual Communications on the Framework, the EC has reported on the number and type of national commitments, identifying, according to the latest figures for 2017, 883 actions, of which 480 were explicitly targeted at Roma. 

Measuring the impact on the lives of real people has proved immensely difficult at the European level. Despite an explosion in Roma-related research over the last couple of decades, there is a lack of complete or consistent data relating to the wide variety of the diverse communities defined as Roma for EU policy processes. The Framework encourages policy on an ethnic basis, but there are considerable differences between Member State governments in respect of the status of ‘Roma’ and in their capacity and commitment to ethnic data collection. Roma policy also contends with the legal and ethical challenge of public authorities attributing a subjective, and often prejudicial, identity when it is the right of the individual to choose their own (ethnic) identity.

Consequently, the EU lacks a meaningful baseline against which to set targets or measure progress. Indeed, the Framework has compelled the EU to produce its own Roma data, commissioning surveys from the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). Carried out in 2011 and 2016, the results formed part of the EC’s own assessment of the Framework and have been widely quoted in the policy discourse. However, these results do not tell us much about the Framework’s impact, not only because they are four years old, but because the surveys were only carried out in nine Member States! What they show is that over the first five years of the Framework, FRA could identity only slight improvement in six of 16 policy areas.

For the Framework’s mid-term review, a qualitative stakeholders survey showed similar ambivalence with most respondents not seeing any improvement in any policy area. Despite emphasising the positive, the Roma Civil Monitor’s 2020 report on the Framework could not find any significant improvement in any of the target policy areas. In preparing for the renewal of the Framework later this year, the EC has not undertaken any impact assessment as ‘expected impacts strongly depend on the level of commitment to Roma equality and inclusion agreed to by the Member States‘ and ‘carrying out an impact assessment in the area of Roma equality and inclusion is confronted with serious limitation in terms of ethnic data collection’.

The complexity of Roma identity and the attempt to apply it to groups of people for political purposes and in accordance with institutional needs means the EU faces immense challenges to authoritatively quantify the impact of its own policy. This has two implications. First, weak data means weak accountability, further limiting the influence EU institutions can have on the actions of Member States. Second, a great deal of time an effort can be spent on devising special Roma reporting templates, data collection tools, guidance etc. to achieve administrative coherence.

One solution to the data problem could be to formally identity all Roma people (to establish an EU Roma register) and then monitor what happens to those people. The racist implications of such an idea are obvious, but also illustrate that the next Roma Framework has to find the right balance between the interests of prescriptive ethnic policy and the needs of people who require stronger citizenship to secure equitable treatment from their national authorities. 

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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