Italy should offer leadership on Roma issues
Italy might not seem an obvious choice for leadership on Roma issues in Europe. In a Vatican address in June, Pope Francis commented on the widespread hostility to Roma in Italy, and the dangers of ostracising communities.
In the recent past the Italian government has enacted legislation granting emergency powers, normally reserved for wartime, to legitimise forced evictions, the construction of segregated housing and fingerprinting and photographing of Roma. Despite this, Italians have both practical and moral leadership they can bring to the task.
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Practically, Italy now has the Presidency of the European Union and a public platform in front of 28 member states for the next six months. There are steps Italy can take to radically improve the lives of Roma in Italy that will signal to other member states that the status quo is no longer acceptable—change is possible.
Italy can also offer leadership to other member states on European wide changes that can improve the lives of Roma. From a moral perspective, Italy can draw on its own history. A century ago Italian Americans were dubbed “lazy beggars” and “violent criminals”—the same stereotypes Roma labour under today. Italians are better placed than many to understand the damage this causes.
To begin with, Italy can support—and encourage others to do likewise—the Council of Europe's plans to establish a new European Roma Institute that will explore, preserve and rebuild Roma culture and identity.
This can be a powerful tool to help dispel negative stereotypes. Due to widespread, systemic discrimination, some of the small, but remarkably ambitious, minority of Roma who have gained a university education and prospered in the job market have shed or concealed their Roma identity.
Whilst their fears of different treatment are well-founded, merely escaping discrimination does not end it. A European Roma Institute would help reverse this assimilation trend.
The Roma must be included in employment and entrepreneurship programmes if the European Union and its governments are genuine when they say that economic growth and job opportunities are a priority for all.
There are networks of Romani entrepreneurs that can be supported to generate jobs; they need alternative access to finance due to discrimination from regular banks and mentoring to grow their income generation projects.
The European Commission can develop innovative employment and entrepreneurship models from which many Europeans, not only Roma could benefit.
Lack of political will is the biggest impediment to progress, not lack of money. Many governments with large Roma populations are either not using all of the European Union funds allocated to them, or regrettably using them inappropriately.
The European Union institutions charged with using taxpayers' money to improve the lives of Roma lack sufficient oversight on whether Roma are even benefiting from this expenditure: do families have running water, electricity and a school that will accept their children and not segregate them as a result of European funds? Often not.
Italy would do well to assist the establishment of a special fund—again, for the benefit of all Europeans, not just Roma—directly administered from Brussels that will present innovative models to help support service-providers on the ground. These modest steps can help stop European Union money deepening the problems Roma face rather than solving them.
It is not just the future of six million European citizens which is at stake; so too is the European Union’s credibility on the international stage.
As the debate on the European Union’s new foreign policy chief heats up, the successor should consider if the European Union can reasonably call for the equal treatment of all citizens in Ukraine or North Africa or the Middle East when it continues to fail its largest minority community at home?
As long as the treatment of Roma is influenced by political expediency and negative attitudes instead of sound policy grounded in European values, Europe’s legitimacy at home and abroad is in question. Italy is now well placed to remind the European Union of just that.
The writer is Director of Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives Office