The European Commission put forward on Wednesday (7 October) its new ten-year framework for the inclusion and participation of Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, with minimum targets to be achieved by 2030 in the areas of inclusion, participation, education, employment, health, and housing.
Progress over the past decade has been glacial for an estimated six million Romani people in the EU in all these areas, with limited improvement in education.
The new plan, replacing the previous iteration widely perceived as not having achieved its objectives, will strive to halve the number of Roma experiences with discrimination while doubling the reporting when such experiences do occur.
It also aims to reduce by 50% the poverty gap between Romani communities and the average population, provide at least 95% of Roma with access to tap water, and cut the gap in life expectancy by at least a half, among others.
The gaps the strategy will have to close are wide. The life expectancy of the Roma is 10 years lower than that of the general population even in Western European countries, a recent survey showed.
Anti-gypsyism is widespread throughout the continent, with surveys showing that almost half of EU citizens (45%) feel uncomfortable having Romani as neighbours.
“There seems to be a high acceptance by societies of this kind of racism,” said the Commission’s equality boss Helena Dalli.
“The moral stigma, which is attached to other forms of racism, is absent. So, then anti-gypsyism becomes the norm and not the exception.”
Rights organisations have warned that violence and police harassment against Romani people has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Commission’s proposal “envisages the effective implementation of EU equality legislation, in particular, the Racial Equality Directive,” which outlawed the discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin.
However, in a 2018 report, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) said that the “existing evidence of wide-spread discrimination against Roma suggests that the RED is not effective – at least with respect to that particular group.”
Last month, the European Parliament called on the Commission to come up with a law for the equality, inclusion, and participation of Romani people and for combating anti-gypsyism.
The Commission’s values and transparency chief Věra Jourová called RED “a good piece of legislation which needs to be better enforced.”
“That is why we are also planning to enforce the ability of the people to complain that there has been discrimination against them, because in our figures we also see that there is underreporting.”
Jourová said that “anti-gypsyism, in many cases, [include] the messages we read online, [which] are criminal activities, it is hate speech, which is prohibited by criminal law.”
The EU has signed a code of conduct to combat illegal hate speech online with several tech giants, including Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube.
“We will upgrade the responsibility of the platforms regarding the illegal content of this kind, at the end of this year by legislation,” Jourová added.
Dalli said that “to put more legislation would be defeating the purpose because the legislation is there, we want to make that legislation work.”
The Commissioner added that “the big work comes when we are addressing attitudes, stereotypes, changing cultures, changing mindset,” she added.
“We will promote positive narratives and Roma role model. We will support actions to raise awareness on Roma history and culture, and promote truth and reconciliation,” Dalli told reporters.
COVID-19 and funding
“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the extreme exposure of excluded and marginalised Roma communities to both short-term negative health impacts and to medium-term socio-economic impacts,” the Commission plan reads.
Roma settlements, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, are often densely populated with overcrowded households that accommodate several generations of large families and have limited to no access to basic public services, such as garbage collection.
Besides being exposed to a higher risk of infectious diseases, Roma children also have limited access to the internet or electricity, making distance learning impossible.
The Commission’s plan encouraged member states to use Union funds to promote Roma inclusion alongside calling on EU countries to ensure that €672.5 billion to be borrowed from the financial markets for recovery “foster the inclusion of vulnerable groups, including Roma and other people with a minority racial or ethnic background.”
With only 43% of Roma in employment, the Commission also emphasised the economic rationale for Roma inclusion.
Without education and labour market participation, “we would be just passive and waiting for that new generation of unemployed adults,” Jourová said. “We cannot afford to waste the labour force, we cannot afford to waste the talents, so what we are proposing has a very strong economic sense.”
The EU executive’s strategy would see the FRA carry out a regular Roma survey every four years starting from 2020. This should address what critics say is the often lacking and incomplete data on the situation of Roma in the bloc.
The Commission would like to see member states adopt the plan this year, but no later than in the first half of 2021, with national inclusion strategies for the minority to be put together the same year.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]