Strangling the European dream: Sarkozy, Roma and collective punishment

Article published on Sept. 11, 2010
community published
Article published on Sept. 11, 2010
"They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.
"             Pastor (1892–1984)

Martin Niemöller

Last month the European Union was shook up by expulsions of the Roma from France, shedding light on equally or even more criminal actions in Italy (at a local level though) and invoking such concepts as 'crime', 'stigmatisation', 'security', 'rights' - as always. Before we notice, 'big politics' is facing realignments and populations in Europe are fed with daily portions of fear and distrust. Sarkozy, a former minister of interior, is doing his best to perform his brutal acts wearing white gloves: the way he and his followers present the issue is almost flawlessly politically correct and taps into the fears that lurk in many Europeans, while other powers than the extreme right fail to address those. But as we discuss, people are being sent away, and the European dream, embodied in the fundamental treaties of the EU, is convulsing in its agony, abandoned.

I have spoken on the radio and written on this issue, but the more I do so, the more powerless I feel. And I am not even a Roma rights activist... Much more important, however, is that the European Parliament had the courage to vote, 337 against 245, to publicly condemn the expulsions of the Roma and demand that France stops these disgraceful policies (I asked a Lithuanian MEP, Leonidas Donskis, whether there is anything more going to be done in the EP, and he assured that he will raise this issue in working groups - I'm grateful to him for that). However, the European Commission, which initially washed its hands of the issue, is still reluctant to take any public stance. More recently, Barroso completely failed to mention anything about the expulsions in his state of the union speech.

Some background here. The Roma (also called Gypsies - in some cultures this term is mega-offensive, in others the Roma use it themselves and don't mind it. Etymologically, the use of 'Gypsies' presumes that they come from Egypt (strange theory from Britain), while 'Roma' presumes they come from the territory of Romania. In many songs European Roma call themselves 'Romale', so I use 'Roma'. Many Roma believe their ancestors came from India, but they've been in Europe as long as the ancestors of many Europeans) are said to be Europe's most persecuted people, living in poverty, discrimination and segregation in many countries. Since the middle ages, they were pushed into certain ethnic niches, beyond the economy of the mainstream populations. When borders between nations and countries were drawn and enforced in bureaucratic and military means, nobody cared to ask them what they think about it. In the age of nationalism their mere existence and non-conformism suddenly became a problem. People's life had to fit into Procrustean beds - strictly delineated ethnic groups, nations, classes and lifestyles. There was no place for the Roma in this scheme. During the war, the Nazis did not have such a clear plan for the Roma as they did for the Jews - another stateless and unclassifiable group at that time. In many places settled Roma were registered, but left alone, while nomadic Roma were sent to forced labour or extermination camps. A large share of the Roma was killed. However, the Roma resisted as they could, rather risking their lives than being flocked into ghettos and camps. I learned a lot about the mass killings of the Roma in Europe (sometimes referred to as the Roma Holocaust, but largely understudied in European schools) at the Forum for Living History in Stockholm - very recommendable. Even neutral countries like Sweden were far from immune to the disastrous 'racial purity' ideas of the 20th century - the Roma were meticulously registered, their lives were scrutinised, and in order to control their population many women were tricked into the sterilisation programme, which lasted even after the war was over and Europe renounced the ideas of racial and ethnic purity.

During the socialist rule in Eastern Europe, many Roma neighbourhoods were left as they were, but many Roma were also made to go to formal schooling and work. In Hungary, male Roma often found employment in the booming construction sector. Yet following the capitalist 'transition', the state was not committed to providing employment to everybody, industrial giants went bankrupt, and the Roma went back to their usual lifestyle, where you can only rely on your relatives and your tribe. Various municipal, governmental and NGO initiatives are there to lift them out of poverty or at least ensure access to formal schooling for Roma children. Yet after such a history, it is hardly surprising that the inertia and distrust in any government is widespread in Roma communities. Schools can be stigmatising for any child from a poor family, but even more so for Roma children. Many families do not see any value in formal education and prefer to have their children working (including begging) and contributing to the family budget.

Up till today, many Roma live in distant, isolated villages (especially in Romania and Bulgaria, to some extent in Hungary), suffer from educational underachievement (in Slovakia and Hungary many Roma children are placed in special schools for pupils with learning difficulties and are further demotivated), poverty and lack of opportunities. Many Roma settlements do not have electricity and sanitation and are islands of 'third world' in the midst of increasingly prosperous Europe. In some countries (like Lithuania) the majority of the Roma typically look very different from the mainstream populations. In others (like Hungary) they look exactly the same. It may sound like a mystery, but racial discrimination is widespread regardless. Ironically, the first European summit on the Roma was convened during the French Presidency of the Council (read the follow-up debate). The EU taps its structural funds to create workplaces and upgrade infrastructure for the Roma in the countries where the situation is the worst.

Photo source: Council of Europe Flickr account

Yet many Roma would not wait until a new road connects them to the nearest city. They hit the road themselves, lured by the promise of united Europe with multiple opportunities. The news that Eastern and South-Eastern European countries joined the union where free movement of labour, among others, is one of the fundamental values is understandable even to an illiterate person, while all the exceptions and bureaucratic complications, imposed on the new member states, are not necessarily so.

As of now, Romanians and Bulgarians can freely settle and work in just over a half of EU member states. In others they still need a working permit. They are expected to have a health insurance and means to support themselves if they live in another EU member state for more than three months, but the main rule is that they are not to become a 'burden' on the social security system. Self-employed persons and students have more rights than workers. Read this press release, which discusses the rights of the Bulgarian and Romanian Roma in the EU.

So the only guilt of the Roma, currently deported or tricked out of France, is that they chose France to live in over Finland or Spain. Many Romanian Roma, despite poverty, are surprisingly multi-lingual; French, Spanish and Italian are easy for them to pick up just by watching TV. However, linguistic affinity does not help at all to muddle through the notorious French bureaucracy. Hence most of these Roma did not apply for the work permits (which they would hardly get) or register as self-employed. They set up their own settlements or joined the existing, citizen Roma (Traveller) communities and continue to exist beyond the regular capitalist market. Instead, they earn their income in the 'informal' economy, and their situation is perpetuated by the discriminatory regime of some EU15 countries, which goes against EU commitment to freedom of movement. Lithuanians are not free to work in Germany, Austria and some other countries too until 2011.

Western Europe, as someone claimed (sorry, lost the link), has come to realise that open borders bring not only benefits. Eastern European criminals know that they can earn more, doing the same as they did at home, in the West. Lithuanian cities have become much safer as many robbers moved away. Social problems also move without borders. We hear a lot how Lithuanians murder, mug and torture their co-nationals or others in the UK or Ireland, but we get furious when someone tries to demonise all Eastern Europeans on the basis of someone's crimes. The expulsions could have had the potential to build multi-national solidarity, which could say, hey, enough of this 'evil comes from elsewhere' discourse, enough of this propaganda, stating that immigrants are to blame for unemployment and crime, enough forcing immigrants to carry the disproportionate burden of the crisis, and enough discriminatory regime for Eastern Europeans. If someone didn't want Eastern Europeans in their country, they should have vetoed the EU entry of these countries. Oh no, would they ever... Markets, cheap labour and cheap places to go on holiday are not to be missed.

Sarkozy and his followers did everything to avoid resentment by Eastern Europeans, who have just been in fact reminded once again that some countries of the EU have reserved the right to make them (us) second-class citizens. The French government knows very well that in most of Eastern and South-Eastern European countries the Roma are not considered a part of the collective us. The government framed the expulsions in a very politically correct manner: 'some' Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, who 'happen to be' of Roma ethnicity, will be expelled in reaction to growing crime rates and the illegality of their settlements... And I have already heard reactions like, oh, it's only about the beggars and criminals, we, nice and hard-working Eastern Europeans, are obviously welcome everywhere. An example of such a sentiment is this blog entry by a young Lithuanian, who supports the expulsions and asserts his belief in a conspiracy theory of 'evil' minorities and calls Sarkozy's measures 'saving Europe'. He forgets that the Roma are one of the oldest minorities and European citizens. Interestingly, the author has a family name which is very common among Lithuanian Roma.

The obvious truth is, the French government did not develop a social policy to address the problems of the people living in these precarious conditions. It did not appoint officials to help them see what opportunities they may have to legalise themselves (perhaps register as self-employed), and it did not prepare a strategy to tackle crime in these neighbourhoods. No, it developed an action plan on the Roma. Entire families will be deported or lured into return by offering them the miserable 300 Euros per adult and 100 Euros per child. The people will be fingerprinted in order to prevent re-entry (which would be perfectly legal) and making use of the same benefits once more. The collective memory of the Roma must have saved the information of what such registering and surveillance meant the previous time...

Upon request, the French government provided statistics of how many crimes are carried out by non-citizen Roma. Now the government is considering to pass a law that would allow revoking French citizenship if it was given to a naturalised foreigner if s/he commits repeated crimes. Yet the absolute majority of French-French criminals, committing the same crimes, will not have to go anywhere except for a French jail. Each year thousands of Europeans are pickpocketed, mugged, raped, and murdered by their co-nationals. Each year property, worth thousands of Euros, is set on fire, robbed and vandalised by members of the titular ethnicities. Nevertheless, crime 'has' an ethnicity/ nationality only when foreigners or minorities are concerned. What Sarkozy and his gang are doing is an all-out collective punishment (check out a public statement by Amnesty International and their video comment). It does not matter at this point that it's carried out wearing white gloves. It does not matter anymore if Sarkozy calls his victims 'dirty Gypsies' or 'certain individuals who happen to be of Roma ethnicity'. The measures are put in place in order to plant fear in Roma settlements and make use of the fact that the Roma have typically received very poor education, and their knowledge of bureaucratic procedures is limited. So, if some are forced to leave, others are expected to follow. What is also important is that it sets a precedent that such collective punishments are acceptable, and European Commission's silence with regard to this issue puts a rubber stamp on that. We already observe, step by step, a backlash against Roma integration in Lithuania, and I am sure that in other countries as well. Sarkozy has invited the most influential EU states into a summit which he is planning to use to legitimise his policies, without even consulting the European Commission that did not even dare to speak out against him. I claim that if it stays that way, we can call it the death of the European dream. The dream that Europe has learned its lessons from WWII and is capable of creating a union where people are respected and judged individually. Europe without borders, Europe as people's home - forget about it. The new question now is, who's the next scapegoat? The Roma were never taken into account when drawing national borders. The EU seemed to offer them a new chance, a world that better corresponds to their lifestyle and choices. Apparently, the hope was wrong.

Now the Commission says that it will 'monitor' the expulsions and invest even more in creating better conditions for the Roma to live in their countries of origin. While investing is important, the Roma are once again made passive recipients of welfare instead of allowing them to set off to a journey and actively shape their lives. What Sarkozy&co are doing is much, much more dangerous than Hungarian schools placing Roma in classes for kids with learning difficulties. It is graver than Vilnius municipality planning to demolish unregistered Roma houses without offering social housing. It is worse than the Romanian government's unfulfilled promimses to do something about the situation of the Roma. It is worse than some British, Hungarian or Romanian neo-nazi spitting out hate speech against the Roma. Why? Because it is done at the highest level, with the European Commission's silent approval. There is no higher level to file a complaint to. If the most powerful countries in the EU can claim rights and freedoms but shun responsibilities, if there are first- and second-class free-movers, this is not the Europe I used to advocate. Please give me back my referendum vote.

Fortunately, it's not so terrible as it may seem. As I said, the European Parliament has spoken out. It has a historic chance to prove that a democratically elected EU institution (unlike the Commission, appointed by governments) may assume real power and oppose these disgraceful policies. Rallies against them have already taken place in France, Hungary and perhaps other countries. Intellectuals have reacted. Even in Lithuania a French diplomat felt a need to 'explain' his country's policies to the public, which is a good sign, showing that he feels obliged to explain these policies to non-nationals. If there were committed lawyers to help some of the Roma to file a lawsuit for the European Court of Human Rights, I am sure they would win the case. The institutions are there. The mobilisation is there. Well, supportive public opinion is not. When I spoke on the radio, over 70% of the listeners voted on the programme's website in favour of the expulsions. A similar share of the French population is in support of its government.

Therefore I would like to invite all of you not to remain silent. Blog about it, teach about it and spread the word. Attend all French embassy events in your country, especially those where they speak about European identity and European citizenship (oh, do they like to speak about this!) and overload them with inconvenient questions about the Roma. Contact your MEP and ask their opinion. Address the audiences that still think that France has a 'right' to protect its citizens from 'foreign crime'. Join and organise rallies. Make sure your university, religious community, NGO or local newspaper knows about it. As one NGO claims, global public opinion is the new superpower. France is a democratic country, concerned with its public image. These expulsions are not France's local business. France was among the countries that established the EU, and this is a 100% EU business.

--- Update ---

Since I wrote, many new statements were made.

Follow my Twitter for faster updates. What I'm still waiting for isThe European Parliament voted in favour of public condemnation of France's actions (have you asked how your MEP voted?) A document was leaked, which shows that the Ministry of Interior had a plan to target Roma specifically. EU Commissioner V.Reding openly criticised the expulsions and compared them to Nazism. To which the reaction was that of fury. French European affairs minister Pierre Lellouche said,"You don't address yourself like that to a great state such as France, which is the mother of human rights". So as you see, now they are criticising their critics for being not PC enough. In fact, when we think about WWII and Nazism, we always have in mind the "Final Solution", but go to any Holocaust museum and you will see that there were many steps which led to it, and made European populations comfortable with this horrendous idea. Singling out one group of people, attributing ideological blame ("Capitalists! Communists! Unintegrated! Integrated, but with double loyalty!"), taking away their property were the first steps. The European Commission is realising the risks and slowly moving towards supporting the critics. France faces a fine from the European Court of Justice (hopefully). Criticism comes from the US. Also, supporters of France point at other cases, such as Germany, which recently signed a deal with Kosovo to repatriate refugee Roma who have settled in Germany. While this act of Germany is a disgrace (I have more info about it, may blog next time, but try to find Želimir Žilnik's documentary about a Roma guy called Kennedy who returns from Germany), the actions of France are different in legal terms. The Roma expelled from France are . Which implies that if France gets away with it, EU citizenship means nothing.When will anyone help the Roma file a lawsuit for the European Court of Human Rights? When will Amnesty International, the US, Canada, Belgium and other governments announce that these Roma should be regarded as refugees.

EU citizens