Roma, not just human rights groups, need to speak up
22.10.10 @ 09:25
Spurred on by recent headlines on the treatment of Roma in Europe, many EU policy-makers are now realising that they can no longer move forward on the issue of inclusion without speaking with those most directly affected - the Roma communities themselves.
Take for example EU Commissioner Viviane Reding's recently announced five-point action plan that promises a dialogue with Roma. The problem is that the Roma are the least organised and most underrepresented ethnic minority group in Europe while the EU is the most advanced and powerful transnational political organisation in Europe. The promise of a dialogue prompts two fundamental questions - who exactly is commissioner Reding going to speak with? Who can, and who should, enter into dialogue with the commission on behalf of the Roma?
The context of social exclusion and economic marginalisation that characterises the current situation of Roma reproduces itself in the realm of politics. In the face of widespread hunger, segregated education, employment discrimination, poor health, appalling living conditions, and hate-based attacks, the issues of active citizenship and political representation for the Roma have never been high on the agenda of the European Union, or for that matter the communities affected. Now, when its crunch time and there is an urgent need to enter a dialogue about reforms and responsibilities, the EU needs credible and legitimate counterparts around the table who can discuss social and political exclusion.
In the absence of Roma political representation, civil society advocates and organizations, Roma and non-Roma alike have been a driving force in policy dialogues with the EU and national governments. However, despite their best intentions, they are not elected officials and as such, their legitimacy and political accountability toward Roma community can be called into question.
It is the promise of democracy that every person will be represented in decision-making. Only then can a person feel bound to respect and comply with the common rules that bind a polity. And it is only when Roma are represented and fully recognized as citizens that decisions concerning their lives will acquire legitimacy and relevance. Otherwise, top-down policy interventions - most egregiously manifested in the brute power of bulldozers leveling Roma households - will continue to corrode the notion of Roma as citizens.
Ideally, political parties should represent their constituencies, including Roma citizens. However, this has not been the case. Mainstream political parties provide extremely limited space for candidates of Roma origin and poorly represent the needs of Roma communities. The EU cannot sit around and wait for political parties to change. It must take action itself.
The European Union should find a model for stimulating Roma representation. Regulations on gender quotas could be adapted as a midterm solution for increased Roma elected representatives in the European and national parliaments. In the long term, the commission needs to include the concept of active citizenship in its future EU Roma policy. Provisions must be made to ensure every citizen of Roma origin is registered to vote, has access to the polls, and can make informed decisions.
In the meantime, commissioner Reding is right to promise a dialogue with Roma ourselves. The EU can no longer only speak with policy with experts - it must engage with elected representatives of Roma communities. In European, national, and local parliaments, there are elected politicians who are Roma and who should be part of the dialogue.
The current level of political representation of Roma is plainly inadequate and the level of exclusion so pervasive that Roma do not feel a sense of common belonging as citizens. The more profound and longer-term challenge is to strive for proportionate political representation of Roma within the union, and to promote a sense of citizenship among the millions hitherto excluded. The sooner the better, because if integration is to work and effective policies are to take root, dialogue alone will not suffice.
Integration requires a sense of ownership and responsibility from all sides, government and opposition parties, and all citizens, Roma and non-Roma.
Zeljko Jovanovica is Roma leader from Serbia and the director of Roma programmes for the Open Society Foundation.