International round table
“THE ROMA PEOPLE OR WHAT IT MEANS TO BE EUROPEAN”
28 May 2016, Belgrade
On 28 May 2016 the European Center for Peace and Development (ECPD) UN-mandated University for Peace and the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies (LIEIS) organized an international round table on the topic “The Roma people or what it means to be European” at the Media Center in Belgrade.
The purpose of the meeting was to examine whether there has been some progress regarding the situation of Roma following the efforts made by the European Union but also by a number of NGO’s. Has the so-called Roma decade improved the lot of this minority? What remains to be done in the years ahead?
In his keynote address Dr. Federico Mayor, president of the ECPD International Board of Trustees and former director general of UNESCO, refers to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which stresses the importance of dignity. In Europe extremists are coming to power. There is fascism: we should remember the late 1930s. There is also racism: we cannot accept an ideology saying that one person is more important than another one. Finally there is no peace without justice and no development without peace.
Prof. Christopher Coker, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, gave the second keynote address. For him the French Revolution was a mind event which led to liberalism, communism, fascism. The USA was the first to reject the European model. C. Coker mentions the European idea of Denis de Rougemont. Max Weber, Franz Kafka and others talked about alienation.
In the European Union there is now a debate between a cosmopolitan and a communitarian view of Europe. As to mass migration: France, Britain and others are accustomed to this; Hungary and others not. Prof. Coker also talked about the Western identity crisis triggered by Islam. He asked whether European identity has to be defined ontologically or in a community sense. He mentioned that Immanuel Kant excluded the Jews. Prof. Rajko Duric, president of the Roma Union of Serbia, added that the philosopher from Königsberg excluded also the Roma.
In his introductory remarks Dr. Armand Clesse, director of the LIEIS, who was chairing the meeting, asked whether the EU had perhaps the wrong agenda and the wrong priorities, due to its obsession with economic growth and political stability. There is a risk that the EU will not just decay but even fall apart under the pressure of extremisms and national egoisms.
As to European values one has to distinguish between the proclaimed and the practiced ones. While there is a discourse of inclusion, the actual policy focuses more and more on exclusion, not just regarding the refugees.
The enlargement policy of the EU has proved to be short-sighted and self-defeating, also regarding the Roma people: instead of asking candidate countries such as f. ex. Romania and Bulgaria to implement the Copenhagen criteria concerning fundamental human and minority rights before being admitted, the EU closed its eyes. It engaged in loose and elusive designs such as the ”Roma decade” which despite substantive transfers of money have achieved no progress for the Roma population. In fact the lot of the Roma has deteriorated practically everywhere in the past 25 years, with the possible exception of Spain. By the way, there are not even somewhat reliable data about their social situation, about unemployment, about illiteracy, discrimination and exclusion.
The Roma have become a collateral victim of the refugee crisis which is drawing most of the attention and the energy of the EU and its member states.
Prof. Andras Balogh, former dean of the Faculty of History at the University of Budapest, asked what the criterion is to be European. The Roma are Arians, Indo-Europeans. He mentioned that the Roma were excluded from compensation for the Holocaust. He also raised the question as to whether we live in a post-Christian society and stressed that the Czech Republic is the most atheist country in Europe.
Roma, A. Balogh said, want to be loyal citizens of Europe. The ethnicization of the Roma question, i.e. trying to give the Roma a separate identity, is a terrible blunder. France and Italy were not even able to integrate the very small numbers of their Roma people. The Roma community is not homogenous; there exist even castes. The Roma people should be included in the fight for a more egalitarian society.
Prof. Duric, who is considered a kind of “doyen” of Roma studies, explained that it was only in the 19th century that the question of the identity of Roma was raised. He referred to Hegel and the importance of recognition. In many countries, he said, Roma are legally invisible people. R. Duric referred to four paradigms or stereotypes:
1. “Roma are not people”
2. “Roma are lazy”
3. “Roma are dirty, ugly and mean”
4. “Roma have a different genetic code”
For Prof. Eric Weaver Beckett, associate Professor at the University of Szeged, Roma are the ideal Europeans. They have not committed genocides, they have not colonized others. But they are victims – of stigmatisation, of forced assimilation. Their language is shrinking; Roma culture may disappear.
Dr. Sofiya Zahova from the Balkan Ethnology Department of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences talked about what she calls “the orientalization of the Roma issue”, the exotic image people have of them. She also examined the marginalization of the Roma.
Dr. Koka Ljuan from the Center for Education of Roma and Ethnic Communities drew the attention to what he called the racism and fascism of teachers of Roma people. The life expectancy of Roma is very low; Roma people don’t have any political influence.
Dr. Dragoljub Ackovic from the Serbian Government’s Office for Human and Minority Rights argued that high moral standards do not produce high economic standards. In the Encyclopaedia Britannica Roma were once referred as being at the level of ten- or eleven-year-old children. Christians, even the Pope, have written awful things about Roma people and forbidden the socializing of Roma with non-Roma. In the 15th century there was a law allowing the killing of “deer, wild boars and Roma children”.
Dr. Adrian Pabst, senior Lecturer in Politics at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, argued that imposing values such as emancipation, equality or diversity on the Roma people will neither recognise their difference nor help their integration into the countries where they live. Instead, what is needed is a proper understanding of the culture of the Roma people, their beliefs and their ways of life. While there might be universal principles such as human dignity and decency, it is crucial to view them as embedded in cultural practices ‒ not as abstract standards that states can dictate to people.
One cannot but conclude that the various efforts of the past years have not had a major impact on the situation of the Roma people: they remain as poor, as illiterate, as isolated, as stigmatised, as discriminated as ever.
In Central and Eastern European countries the situation has even deteriorated since communist times, f.ex. when it comes to employment.
The Roma are always the victims of any major crisis, be this crisis political or economic or social. The European Union is now so obsessed with the refugee problem that it has all but forgotten the ongoing Roma predicament.
The LIEIS had concluded in October 2008 an agreement of cooperation with the ECPD. It had co-organized with the ECPD in May 2010 a meeting in Belgrade on “Preservation and development of Roma cultural heritage in Serbia”. Moreover the LIEIS had held in Belgrade in October 2012 in association with the ECPD a conference with a number of known international experts on “New Balkans in a changing world” and in October 2013 on “New Balkans and Europe: Peace, development, integration”. On the situation of Roma people the LIEIS had organized in October 2011 in cooperation with Prof. Jean-Pierre Liégeois an international conference in Luxembourg on “European policies and Roma: From failure to possible adaptation: A critical assessment of the content, logic and aims of the policies concerning Roma at the European level”.