Maybe the Roma need their own Love Parade to get the EU to notice them

Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver on 4 August, 2010.

Perhaps we could be accused of an excess of cynicism, but us hacks in the Brussels press corps regularly roll our eyes at the European Commission’s opportunistic penchant for putting out nigh-on-identical statements of condolence whenever there is a tragedy of any major or even minor description or anniversary of some ancient (but historically uncontroversial) wickedness: Kristallnacht, an earthquake in China, the Love Parade stampede, the death of Michael Jackson.

But the cynicism was warranted on Monday, when the EU condolence-o-matic seemed to be malfunctioning for some reason. There was no solemn communique of sympathy, no moment of silence, not even a bland message carefully crafted by PR flunkies recommitting to “Never again” do this or that on the evening of 2-3 of August, the night of Roma Extermination Remembrance, the international date for commemoration of the Gypsy and Sinti victims of the Pharrajimos or Samudaripen, the two Romani words used to describe the Holocaust.

Because you see, Monday is just not the right day to do so. But maybe next year one of the EU presidents will, so long as the date does not also awkwardly coincide with a wave of expulsions and new laws targetting the Roma as it so inopportunely does this year.

In the past week, we have learnt that French President Sarkozy announced he is to destroy 300 Roma encampments and expel Roma from French territory, that Germany said it wants to expel 12,000 Gypsies, including 6,000 children and adolescents back to Kosovo, that Sweden in violation of domestic and EU law is deporting Roma for begging, that Copenhagen has asked the Danish government for assistance including the use of force to expel Roma, and that a caravan of 700 travellers were chased out of Flanders.

All this atop the Czech and Slovak practice of automatically sending Roma children to ‘special schools’ for the mentally handicapped, Italy’s 2008 declaration of a state of emergency due to the presence of Roma that saw the eviction of thousands of them, mainly to Romania and Bulgaria, and the murder last year of eight Roma in Hungary by individuals linked to the country’s far-right.

So right now really would not be a good time to be remembering the 66th anniversary of the liquidation by the Germans on the night of 2-3 August, 1944, of 2,897 men, women and children corralled into the Zigeunerfamilienlager , or ‘Gypsy family camp’, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

One might be thought to be drawing inconvenient attention to the similarity of what happened so many decades ago and the government-orchestrated attacks that Europe’s largest and most oppressed minority face across the continent today.

As Anneliese Baldaccini, a lawyer with Amnesty’s EU office, told me: “There is a clear and systemic programme of EU governments targetting Roma. This is a moment of great concern right now.”

It is a shame that the date is so uncomfortably unseasonable, because the EU actually has very considerable powers to put a stop to it all, in a way that no actors had seven decades ago.

At the heart of the EU treaty lies the ultimate sanction Brussels can apply to any member state: diplomats call it the ‘nuclear option’. Under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which states that in cases of a “serious and persistent breach” of human rights, penalties up to the withdrawal of voting rights in the European Council and even expulsion from the union can be imposed.

Amnesty believes now is time to act. “The EU under the Lisbon Treaty under Articles, 2, 6 and 7 has the responsibility to address human rights within the 27 member states,” said the group’s executive officer for legal affairs in the European Union, Susanna Mehtonen.

But the European Commission, which like the European Council and the European Parliament, have the power to invoke such sanction, wants to stay as far away as possible from the issue. On Thursday, the spokesman for commissioner Viviane Reding, the justice commissioner, Matthew Newman, said: “When it comes to Roma and the possibility of expelling them, this is up to the member states to deal with, in this case France, and for them to decide how they are going to implement the law.”

When the Charter of Fundamental Rights came into force with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty last year, the EU heralded the moment as a new dawn for human rights in Europe. The member of the commission responsible for the justice dossier was now also to become explicitly the “fundamental rights” commissioner, under pressure from the Liberals in the European Parliament.

Indeed, in April at a European Commission conference on the Roma issue, commissioner Reding called discrimination against the continent’s largest minority “unacceptable”.

But at the very moment when a deluge of government assaults is unleashed on the community in so many EU states, Brussels has gone silent.

The charter, the commission now clarifies, is not a bill of rights for citizens, but is instead just an instrument covering two very narrow areas: acts of the EU institutions themselves and EU member states when they implement EU law. The moves of France and other countries in this case thus lie outside their responsibility, they insist.

What is curious is that, applying this same strict reading, the commission also has no competence in defending the rights of gays and lesbians, except insofar as there is a breach of charter in these two situations, yet gay rights, long established in western European metropoles but not in much of eastern Europe, are monthly fairly robustly defended by the institutions.

In May, Reding’s office wrote to Vilnius to complain how a lower court had banned a gay pride rally. “The commission is concerned about the recent developments,” said the letter. Just days later, Lithuania’s top court ensured that the march could go ahead after all. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy also sent a “strong message condemning homophobia” to this year’s Baltic Pride.

The difference in the two situations is that there is an unspoken hierarchy within the bloc between the new eastern European states and the economic powerhouses in the west. Brussels can contentedly slap the wrists of eastern capitals without fear of consequence. The same cannot be said when the EU executive goes up against a Sarkozy or a Berlusconi.

It is not that the commission does not believe that such a flagrant breach of human rights is occurring. “This is the sort of thing that Sarkozy used to make his name. He’s really low in the polls now, so he’s using the same tactics. It worked before. And it’s really popular everywhere,” one commission official told me.

“It is possibly the most sensitive issue there is,” the official added, recalling when another spokesman last year lightly suggested that Italy might want to explain why it had deported a boatload of refugees to Libya. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the time threatened to veto all actions of the European Council if the commission did not fire the spokesman for having the temerity of encouraging Rome to apply the law.

So this time around, “A decision was made to give a very institutional response.”

The commission privately argues that as for the “nuclear option” of invoking Article 7,  “This is for rounding up all the gypsies and putting them in concentration camps. We’re not anywhere near there yet.”

But a Holocaust, or Pharrajimos or Samudaripen, does not arrive suddenly one day ex nihilo, returned from a long break in the Bahamas and knocking on Barroso’s door to announce himself: “Hello, Jose-Manuel? It’s Cousin Fascism! I’m baaack! What’s for tea? Oooh, lookie, lookie – austerity, mass unemployment! I do love this season in the economic cycle!” Fascism arrives slowly, quietly, by a steady but still recognisable tightening of the screws. Europe must act now before concentration camps do appear. In any case, they won’t be called concentration camps or look anything like them. Maltese and Greek detention centres for sub-Saharan irregular migrants were not built with cast-iron gates at their entrance emblazoned ‘Arbeit macht frei‘, though concentration camps are indeed what they are. Leaders will avoid such archetypically fascist language or forms of action so that they and Brussels can always claim that what is happening is “completely different”.

Under Article 7, precise penalties in advance of the level of withdrawal of voting rights or expulsion are not spelled out, so there is still considerable room for Brussels to manoeuvre. No one is expecting that France be kicked out of the EU. At the very least, could Reding not send a letter similar to that which she sent to Lithuania when the gay pride march was banned?

Or maybe next year, maybe gypsies could just organise a float during the Love Parade to get the EU to notice them.

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16 thoughts on “Maybe the Roma need their own Love Parade to get the EU to notice them

  1. It’s depressing to think that these things are still going on in Europe today. The legal position with the Charter of Fundamental Rights was always that it would only apply in those 2 situations (I don’t think that there’s anything new in that; the Commission hasn’t suddenly revealed an aspect of Treaty law that wasn’t previously known).

    However, Brussels should use more of it’s political weight and the powers under the Treaties as you’ve described. Though it’s hard to say without knowing the cases in detail, it’s likely that there are EU legal issues over explusion due to the free movement of workers rights.

    Perhaps the Euroblogosphere could try to make waves over the issue?

  2. Certainly there’s nothing new in this reading at all, but during the battle over the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland when I was covering it, there were many pacifist, progressive, trade union, and similar forces that had many reservations about the treaty but were won over by some of the language of the Yes forces specifically about the Charter of Fundamental Rights being some sort of new era of human rights in Europe. The No forces that had actually read the treaty where quite clear in their literature that there were strict limitations to what sort of oversight it provided, but this was rubbished by, in particular, the trade union leadership and the Irish Labour Party. This was never corrected by Brussels actors, who I feel were quite happy to let people going on believing that, so long as they voted Yes. This is the surprise – not for me, but for many millions across Europe who thought there was something innovative about the CFR.

    In any case, my point is less about the disingenousness of the Lisbon-Treaty-battle-era discourse about the CFR than the fact that even with such constraints there is still a lot of room for the commission (or the Council or the parliament) to act in the case of the Roma, but it’s not legality that is holding them back, but a political decision not to intervene.

  3. @ Le Retif

    I don’t really recognise the Irish Lisbon Treaty debate as you present it. There were 2 arguments against the Charter at the time: it went too far and was too strong against member states and businesses, and that it was too weak. The 2 counter agruments were that it was a significant strengthening of the human rights regime in the EU, but that it was restricted in scope to EU law an institutions (the last point was even more vocally made in UK politics as well).

    Perhaps the counter arguments weren’t married particularly well, and instead used separately against those who argued one point or the other. However, the legal situation was hardly unknown or not understood at the time (I argued from this point of view on the Bloggers for Europe website, which was a pro-Lisbon platform at the time of the second referendum). It was also made clear in several interviews on radio by the chair of the referendum commission, and it was mentioned by the other parties (though it seems to be a specialised subject within the parties, reserved for a few party members and TDs). Also, in the TV debate against Joe Higgins, the limited nature of the Charter (for EU law and institutions only) was specifically referred to to counter his argument that it would water down national rights. So I can’t accept your characterisation of the debate.

    The Charter plugs a possible legal gap – namely, what would happen if the EU institutions required that member states breach ECHR law – plus there was the goal of strengthening worker’s rights (which it did, without making the ECJ the legislator on the issue instead of the Council and Parliament). Of course, it’s a complex system and the effects still remain to be seen, but it was a definite improvement (the alternative of getting a right-wing Council [i.e. member states; particularly the UK] to agree to an even higher level when the United Left are the smallest Europarty in the EP was never really explained).

  4. Sorry guys, but what is the issue here? Are we simply concerned with legalistic views over the value of the Charter or about the need to protect people belonging to minorities? Aren’t all EU members parties to the ECHR? Is the Rom issue simply an EU issue? What about the responsibilities of Romania (whose leadership keeps squandering EU money to buy new flashy cars for the nomenklatura and kick Roms out to Europe – in Romania, Slovakia and Hungary EU accession meant a golden opportunity to kick the Rom out) and others? If France, Italy (and even liberal and ABBA-perfect Sweden) are concerned with integration and security issues the answer is not EU money or a legal discussion over the weight of the Charter. Further, this is not a left vs. right matter. It is one of human rights and need also for Rom leadership to get involved in saying what it wants for the future of their communities. Keeping children out of school, out of higienic conditions, keeping them in dirty camps, insisting on begging and discouraging integration in the labour market, etc should not be the way for the future development of Rom. So far I have not heard about solutions – from within the community itself of from its defenders. The point about LGBT is out of place. Implying that LGBT are better treated than ROm and that the EU is actively promoting such discrimination is unacceptable. THe fact is that LGBT know what they want and organise themselves to improve their lives.

  5. @Eurocentric

    It’s interesting. I covered the first referendum from Dublin, and on the streets and in the literature of both sides there was indeed discussion of this – in much vaguer terms than you suggest. I’ll have a look through my box of Irish referendum bumf when I get home to see if I can find some examples. Crucially, the CFR was the item that swung most of the unions into backing the document, despite their other reservations. I certainly got the impression upon arriving that the Brussels bubble had little sense of the flavour of the debate on the ground. (And, by the way, Higgins was not opposed to the treaty on the basis of an infringement of national sovereignty, but on the basis of the greater weight accorded the free market than that given to social concerns in what in essense was a re-written constitutional treaty.)

    But, as I said above, I am less interested in the legalism than the impression regular people have. That is the important thing.

    @John Doe

    “Keeping children out of school, out of higienic conditions, keeping them in dirty camps, insisting on begging and discouraging integration in the labour market, etc should not be the way for the future development of Rom.”

    Who are you blaming for this state of affairs, the Roma themselves or the socio-political conditions that have led to such a situation? If the former, you need to do a bit more reading on the situation. You are describing the symptom rather than the cause. It is true that we can’t shy away from the fact that *certain* members of the community engage in anti-social and/or high-risk behaviour, but the existence of such oppressive economic conditions is perforce bound to produce this and, in some circumstances can actually be a rational coping mechanism (i.e., in conditions of extreme economic dislocation, stealing, for example, surely is a rational response).

    As for solutions to the problem and those who are articulating them, you might want to have a read of work of the European Roma Rights Centre, the Roma Rights Network, the Open Society Institute, the Council of Europe (NB. The CoE is not an EU institution) and the OSCE. Although I certainly do hope the Roma get better organised and fight for their rights across Europe in a more strategic fashion. If they wait for the EU to deliver anything from on high, they will be there a long time. Human rights are never given, they are won.

  6. Right point!!!!!!!!!!!Everybody else and everything else deserve more attention than Roma. Roma are not important at all, only when the others can make money out of the topic, eventhen they do not think on people, only terms, NGO slang, and gipsy industry. So, we should think how we can approach, but international massive Roma movement is urgently needed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Now and here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. This is a very welcome argument, many thanks for posting this.

    Just two thoughts:

    * The cause of strengthening human rights in the Union would be helped if people stopped referring to the Treaty Article 7 procedure as “the Nuclear Option”. This is what the enemies of using it call it. In fact, Article 7 is a nuanced series of procedures for bring a Member State back into compliance with human rights and other “fundamental values of the Union” if and when they have strayed. The less Article 7 is views as “nuclear” and the more it is viewed as one of the tools in the EU’s chest for enforcing human rights commitments, the better.

    * There are other legal instruments available to the Union to sanction France and Italy on Roma issues. Most obvious (although by no means the only available tool) would be infringement proceedings under Directive 38/2004. The Commission claims that it has privately threatened use of these during previous expulsion episodes (France and Italy), but that “one does not wash all linen in public”. But here it seems the Commission strategy is flawed: human rights enforcement needs to take place in public. How else is the public supposed to know where the lines are?

  8. Dear Le Retif,

    I am writing to you on behalf of People against Racism – a Slovak NGO aimed at combating racism, discrimination and xenophobia. We were founded with a goal of strengthening a tolerant multicultural society, which would respect human rights and the individuality of every person regardless of their race, ethnicity or nationality. Our organization managed to significantly contribute to opening a large scale, public debate on the problem of racism in Slovak society.

    We found your article very interesting and therefore we would like to ask your permission to translate it into Slovak. The translated article, which would of course credit you as the author as well as provide a link to the original, would then be published on our web page and Facebook page. The translation will be handled by a person with expert translation skills.

    Thank you very much for your co-operation.

    contact: info@rasizmus.sk

    our sites: http://www.rasizmus.sk

    http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/ludiaprotirasizmu?ref=ts

    1. @People Against Racism

      Sure, that’s totally fine, so long as the translation is respectful and you send me a link to the article when it’s published. I would rather as many people as possible read this article. I was driven to write it as I was quite angry about the whole episode.

      Also – do you have a phone number of someone I can reach when I’m writing stories in the future for the EUobserver or the Guardian? You don’t have to post it here, but please email me at lp@euobserver.com

  9. I think Le Retif is on the button with the ‘socio-political conditions’ context. Like our own Travellers, the Palestinians, Inuit, Bantu under apartheid, and even the perceptions of Jews down the persecuting ages, I think the feudal incorporation of land is at the core of the displacement(de-ranging) of these awkward populations that upset the neat graphs of our political accountants.The occupying population does not like to be reminded of the sources of its priviledge, and the very presence of these dispossessed does just that.
    The ‘tragedy of the commons’ will not be cured by our forgetting the crime of its partial remedy by the sword.I agree with those who see these expulsions as early signals of potential trouble.And with Aneurin Bevan’s attributed statement that ‘ Fascism is not in itself a new order of society, it is the future refusing to be born’.These moves are the velvet glove being removed from the economically tightening fist.

  10. Claude is correct. Calling Article 7 the “nuclear option” further enables the EU institutions to remain inert in the face of blatant human rights abuses: It does not require an immediate leap to removing voting rights in the council. There are a range of options leading up to that ultimate sanction.

    I also have always disliked the line “one does not wash all linen in public” that one hears frequently around these parts, especially when it comes to human rights. You make the sound point that human rights questions by their very nature need to be discussed in public.

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