Tuesday

19th Jan 2021

Opinion

EU must act to stop Italy racism crisis

  • "It appears to be the view of many that excessive criticism of an EU Member State government is not done" (Photo: Amnesty International)

Next month, the European Union will hold its first ever "European Roma Summit". The event aims to review policies on Roma inclusion, widely seen to be not yet succeeding in Europe.

The Union's event will aim to be upbeat, but it takes place against a backdrop of crisis: the actions of the new Italian government, which has begun to speak – and act – vigorously to implement a series of draconian policies targeting one ethnic group, a first in Europe since World War II.

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The formation of the current Italian government on 8 May was accompanied by widespread acts of vigilante violence. Its representatives had promised a "crackdown" on Roma, and indicated that those who would take the law into their own hands would suffer few if any consequences.

Thus, on 11 May, four Molotov cocktails were thrown into Romani camps in Milan and Novara. On 13 May, assailants burned the Ponticelli Romani settlement in Naples to the ground, causing the approximately 800 residents to flee while Italians stood by and cheered. On 9 June, a settlement of around 100 Romanian Roma in Sicily was attacked and burned to the ground.

Italian Minister of Internal Affairs Roberto Maroni, also a member of the extreme right Lega Nord party, is reported to have stated about these attacks: "That is what happens when gypsies steal babies."

Mr Maroni has also told the media: "All Roma camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated." The new government has acted on this promise by destroying the housing of Roma in a number of areas, and expelling their inhabitants, or simply forcing them into homelessness.

The new government has also carried out a forced fingerprinting campaign targeting all Roma living in camps, as well as passing a law which defines the mere presence of Roma in a given area as a state of emergency.

No serious discussion

On 28 July, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over a number aspects of the situation of Roma in Italy, and "grave concern" over the acts of the government. Indeed, the new Italian government appears to have broken with the post-World War II European consensus that raw racism is to be excluded from government.

Despite these facts, the European Union has to date been incapable of responding appropriately to the scale of crisis.

Since 2003 and with the amendment of EU Treaty Article 7 by the entry into force of the Treaty of Nice, the Union has had the power to act preventatively when a risk arises threatening the principles on which the Union is based, notably, "the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States".

These powers were included in the Treaty on European Union because the last time explicitly racist parties entered government in a European Union Member State – in Austria in 2000 – it was concluded that the Union needed better legal mechanisms to acts before such a crisis develops, and these were duly enacted.

No serious discussion exists as to now using these powers with respect to Italy. It is apparently the view of many who would be in a position to exercise them, that excessive criticism of an EU Member State government is the sort of thing that is – err – not done.

This inaction harms fundamentally the credibility of the Union. What seriously can the Union say to the millions of Roma of Europe, when it gathers their representatives to Brussels in September?

As long as the Union institutions tolerate the current actions and inactions of the Italian government, the message of the European Union to the Roma of Europe is, "We care little about your pain. We are deaf to your interests."

The author is Head of Advocacy Unit, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), claudecahn@cohre.org

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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