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13th Apr 2024

EU faces big Roma question after 2007 enlargement

Romania and Bulgaria's membership of the EU will bring almost three million more Roma citizens into the bloc, but the ethnic population is still facing strong discrimination in the two Balkan countries.

"The governmental approach to non-registered settlements of mainly Roma community has led to tensions. Forced evictions further increased those tensions," the commission stated in its EU progress report on Bulgaria this week.

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For Romania, Brussels noted that the country's authorities "do not yet demonstrate at all levels that a zero-tolerance policy on racism against Roma is applied."

"There are still cases of institutional violence against and assaulting of Roma, such as police raids and evictions in Roma communities, without providing them with alternative accommodation," said the report.

Racism in the European Parliament

Meanwhile, an incident in the European Parliament on Thursday brought the issue closer to the heart of Europe when Bulgarian observer MEP Dimitar Stoyanov made slighting comments about Roma girls.

Mr Stoyanov (23) was elected as the youngest MP in Bulgaria for the nationalist party Ataka and after months of serving as an "observer" in the EU legislature he is set to become an MEP next year.

Reacting to a proposal to nominate Hungarian Roma centre-right MEP Livia Jaroka for a prize honouring her human rights activities, Mr Stoyanov commented "In my country there are tens of thousands gypsy girls way more beautiful than this honorable one."

"In fact if you're in the right place on the right time you even can buy one (around 12-13 years old) to be your loving wife. The best of them are very expensive - up to 5 000 euros a piece, wow!" he wrote in an email sent out to all parliamentarians.

His comments were condemned by the leader of the centre-right EPP group Hans-Gert Poettering who suggested the Bulgarian authorities should withdraw Mr Stoyanov from the parliament "as there is no place for him among European politicians."

Mr Stoyanov later sent an apology to his colleagues, stating he did not want to offend Ms Jaroka but rather "point out that in Bulgaria gypsy girls are still sold like items by their parents."

Catching the political agenda

The incident is likely to give a boost to those MEPs saying it is the high time the bloc paid more political attention to problems of the EU's biggest ethnic minority group.

With the Balkan newcomers, the Roma community in the EU will amount to around ten to twelve million people, with Romania bringing two million Roma citizens and Bulgaria around 700,000.

"Even without Bulgaria and Romania in the EU, there are enough critical issues concerning the Roma community that we must tackle," says Hungarian Roma deputy Viktoria Mohacsi, from the liberal group.

She points out that in several European countries with a bigger Roma minority, there are still cases of Roma children being sent to schools for the mentally disabled without a proper evaluation, as well as clear cases of racism on the part of local authorities and high unemployment.

As was the case with central European states like Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic before they joined the bloc in 2004, the poor situation of Roma in the two Black Sea countries has been closely monitored and highlighted by EU watchdogs as part of their pre-accession process.

Ms Mohacsi and her socialist colleague Katalin Levai visited a Romanian town of Szaszregen earlier this month to hear evidence on the incident between Roma citizens and police which they claim was followed by a "collective punishment against the Roma community, with even women and children being attacked."

"Romanian policemen were surprised to see two parliamentarians there coming personally to find out more about the case, but this is what we want to do more in the future - follow the cases of violence and blunt discrimination against Roma," noted Ms Levai.

Roma commissioner?

Last year, some socialist MEPs suggested that the European Commission should consider appointing one special commissioner for Roma people as a concrete sign that it takes the issue seriously.

The social affairs spokesperson told EUobserver that the proposal is unlikely to see the light of day - despite the fact that jobs have to be found by January for the two new commissioners from Bulgaria and Romania.

The commission has however created a panel of ten experts "to promote inclusion of ethnic minorities in the EU," led by Rita Sussmuth, former president of the German parliament.

Still, Ms Mohacsi believes the idea of a Roma commissioner "will and must always remain on the table and some of the human rights activists are lobbying for such a move."

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