Ongoing struggle for equality

Article published on March 15, 2007
Article published on March 15, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Racist discrimination - ugly reality in the EU. Two generations of gypsy representatives take part in the fourth of five 'Crossed Portraits', a series marking 50 years of the EU

2007 is the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All. A European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) was created in Vienna at the beginning of the month, complementing the work of the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia founded in 1998. The gypsy community is the EU’s most important minority and they are struggling hard to put an end to prejudice.

January’s Eurobarometer, dedicated especially to the issue of discrimination in honour of the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, says that two-thirds of Europeans see discrimination based on ethnic origin as the most wide-spread form in the Union. Also, although 65% of Europeans believe that the presence of different ethnic origins can enrich national culture, 64% believe that ethnic discrimination has increased in the last 5 years. The study also shows that most Europeans believe that gypsies are at a social disadvantage, although the percentages vary from country to country.

Gypsy politician No. 1

In the midst of an office stuffed full of books and documents evidencing decades of struggle for equality, 64 year-old Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia, president of the Unión Romaní (a federation of Spanish Gypsy associations), recounts a fact which changed his life: his mother made a decision which was unusual at the time, especially in gypsy families, and allowed him to study. 'I still do not know why she, who was illiterate, decided that I should go on studying, but that was a decisive point in my life,' says the Spanish co-founding representative of the former European Monitoring Centre on Racism.

Whilst the Treaty of Rome was being signed in 1957, the lower classes of Franco's Andalucia did not hear anything from outside. During the dictatorship’s harshest years, 'we did not know anything about political life on the other side of the border.' What the Spanish gypsies did know was that they were persecuted by the Guardia Civil, the national police force at the time, as well as by a major part of the population for purely ethnic reasons.

However things have improved for the gypsy population in the decades since then. 'We started off from such a low point. We had to do a lot to overcome that. Despite coming so far, there is still a lot of work to do and many attitudes to change, both on the part of gypsies and of non-gypsies,' says Ramírez-Heredia.

The ex-Euro MP complains about the role of institutions in the struggle of his people; after him, there were no more gypsies in Parliament until the current term which includes two female Hungarian MEPs who are ethnically from the Roma minority, Lívia Járóka and Viktoria Mohacsi.

Woman, Gypsy, Activist!

Manuela Fernández, 28, is an exception to the traditional image of the gypsy in Spain and Europe: she is a gypsy who has completed higher education. She grew up in the controversial La Mina neighbourhood, considered by many to be one of the most socially deprived neighbourhoods around Barcelona. Now Manuela is about to complete her second degree and become a technical expert in the Integral Plan of the Gypsy Population in Catalonia (2005-2008), as well as heading projects involving European gypsies for the Catalonian Government.

Manuela Fernández was influenced to study by her father, a self-educated gypsy, at a time when almost no one else around her even reached secondary education. She says this trend is changing as young people today have different role-models. 'If being a woman and a gypsy is normally an obstacle, having an education has made it an advantage. I have my job because I'm a gypsy and I have associations with that world,' she explains.

Through her work she sees how there is a true European gypsy movement throughout the whole of Europe. 'Young gypsies have international protection and at many meetings the common language, Romani, is used,' she says. On an institutional level, she believes that 'they invest a lot of money in projects for the gypsy population, but this has not had a real impact on European gypsy communities, due, amongst other things, to a lack of follow-ups after grants being awarded.'

For this reason, in order to continue evolving as a people and as European citizens, it is necessary to implement effective intercultural dialogue and increased political participation of the gypsy population, either through their own parties or through established parties. But they have to 'really participate, not just do it for show.'

Translated from Catalan to Spanish by Jose Luís Dolz

To celebrate 50 years of the European Union on March 25, we are presenting a series of cross portraits in the countdown, illustrating what has changed in half a century. will publish the series in a dossier marking the historic signing of the Treaty of Rome on March 21. Look out for the next instalment in the series, 'Post-Soviet to Schengen-land brain drain' which is onsite on Tuesday March 20