Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

A gypsy time

Ralitsa Kovacheva, August 31, 2010

Between 10 and 12 million Roma live in the European Union, the candidate countries and potential candidates in the Western Balkans. Just these numbers attract attention and should keep the problem of "Roma inclusion" in the centre of politicians' attention. However, this is not happening, despite the noisy scandals like the ostensible expulsion of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma from France. Why?

A personal story

When I was a child, in the country-side, Bulgarian and Roma children used to go to school together. In the first grade we had a dozen gypsy kids in our class, but they were gradually dropping out, with only the most stubborn that managed to 8th grade. Teachers were required to report to the Principal for absent Roma children, as for Bulgarians too, and they were doing home visits to verify the living conditions of children and to persuade more stubborn parents in the benefits of education.

And the fact is that, without a cup of free warm milk and snacks, gypsies were coming fairly regularly to school and were able to read and, more or less, to write. And all of them, without exception, were speaking Bulgarian language fluently (just recently I found out that in Bulgaria there are the so called assisting teachers, whose job is to translate the lessons from Bulgarian in Turkish and, respectively, Roma language).

I remember a cleaner in our school - aunt Filyna. Only years later I realised that this kind, polite and extremely hardworking woman was a gypsy, which didn't change my warm attitude towards her. But that was the time of mature socialism, when police was really protecting us, if not from anything else, from the acts of disrespect of law, when most Roma were working and theft was an exception. And I share this not basing it on some forfeited official statistics, but on the memories of people who can hardly protect their houses now, fields and livestock from the Roma raids.

I am telling you this story to show you that Roma people are not just an abstract social problem or a project, but real human beings. Nothing should be generalised about them, as well as about all other people, such as "Roma are lazy," "Roma are thieves" or "Roma are impostors” - that may seem trivial, but if you watch Bulgarian TV news or read the headlines in newspapers, you will find that there is a need of a constant reminder.

And last but not least, I tell you this because I believe that the problem with Roma is directly related to the general problem of our newly democratised country – the lack of respect for the rule of law. Because, you have to agree, how would a Gypsy man with a crowded family refrain from stealing a wire, when he sees the large-scale plundering of the country at all levels, which is not only unpunished but is rewarded with a notably high standard of living.

The French connection

The concrete reason the "Roma question" to be raised at a European level is the expulsion of several Bulgarian and Romanian Roma from France. Moreover: Paris even warned that this could lead to problems with Romania's (Bulgaria was not mentioned) accession in the Schengen area. France asked the European Commission to intervene in resolving the problem at European level, and Brussels, in return, is checking whether Paris's actions are in line with EU law.

Because, as Commissioner for Justice, fundamental rights and citizenship Viviane Reding said, "It is clear that those who break the law need to face the consequences. It is equally clear that nobody should face expulsion just for being Roma.”

In fact, as late as this spring the European Commission published its first political document, fully dedicated to Roma: Communication on Social and Economic Integration of Roma in Europe. But the problem is a prerogative of the national governments, which can use EU funding under the European Social Fund (ESF), European Regional Development Fund, European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development for Roma inclusion. Separately, the EU already co-finances projects for the Roma in sectors like education, employment, micro finance and equal opportunities.

According to an analysis of the European Social Fund (ESF) 2007-2013, Operational Programmes in 12 Member States (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Spain, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) are targeted Roma. The overall budget these countries have allocated to measures benefiting Roma and other vulnerable groups is €17.5 billion (including €13.3 billion of ESF funds). In Hungary and Romania, Roma are potential beneficiaries of more than 50% of the planned ESF interventions. The Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain have dedicated €172 million for activities, aimed solely at Roma. The question is, what is the result of these funds? We all remember the stories about new houses, built with European money, the floors and woodwork of which were used as kindling by the Roma newcomers. The important thing is that money is "absorbed".

The Bulgarian authorities

took advantage of their official summer holidays to neglect the problem. But they shouldn’t, for two reasons. First, it is a possibility Bulgaria itself to initiate a discussion on the matter, to ask for a clear commitment at European level and from the other Member States, to bring back to life the programmes for Roma Inclusion, on which for years money is being spent, but without visible results and recognition of the guilt of the political class for the last 20 years. Because the non-integrated, vulnerable Roma, as any minority in general, are an ideal, cheap and well-organised resource of voters from which most of the political parties have benefited in order to take power or at least to enter parliament.

Second, the Roma have Bulgarian passports and any restriction of their movements, especially based on ethnic lines will inevitably affect the rights of all Bulgarian citizens. Bulgaria is the last country that needs strengthening of the voices for the return (even partial) of border controls, more stringent measures against immigration and restriction of movement, which have already been heard from many European capitals.

France and other countries have concerns about the loss of such an important tool for security management, such as border control, political analyst Vladimir Shopov commented for euinside. "Aside from domestic politics, the Roma problem is a message in this direction and it was clearly bound not just to the issue of integration, but to the toolbox of migration management. For me it is a sign that this topic will have a foreign policy continuation, right in the Schengen direction, and a possible membership of Romania, but also of Bulgaria. At the same time I think the realistic scenario is a delay of accession, rather than postponing it indefinitely in the future. "

Moreover, as it became clear, the EU is not only not ready to discuss the removal of the Bulgarian CVM in the area of justice and home affairs, but is willing to consider the option of introducing such a mechanism EU-wide. According to Mr Shopov, these ideas are still very provisional, at an early stage and there is no consensus about them. It is also clear that in terms of the Schengen system in general there is no way back and any movement in a similar direction is not expected.

"But most of the old Schengen members have some regret that they no longer have a permanent instrument of border control. Therefore, as well as in other relations, entering into "the narrowest" circles of integration will become increasingly difficult and with very solid assurances that the removal of the external border does not threaten their security in a new way. This is the biggest issue Bulgaria is facing: whether, outside the Schengen checks, they have that confidence. With the CVM still existing I do not see how they can have it. "

If such debates are aimed at just looking for an opportunity, Bulgaria should not allow such. "The lack of a real Bulgarian position is entirely in the genre "tactical silence, hoping for a strategic gain "(accession in Schengen). The problem is that we too often find a reason to remain silent, anticipating a variety of benefits. It is time to get rid of this attitude", Vladimir Shopov said.

All this takes us back to the point that the problem of Roma integration in all its aspects - educational, social, economic and political, is part of the bigger problem of the missing state. The state is powerless to force or encourage gypsy children to go to school, their parents to work and obey laws. But the state is powerless to do so with many other people, be it Gypsies, Bulgarians or Turks. The state prefers to pay social security benefits or pretend that it doesn’t see the wire thieves, instead of casting a stone in the swamp and be splashed.

Which means only one thing - a growing group of people will be undereducated, poor, socially excluded and economically burdensome for the rapidly melting group of educated working people. Who will sooner or later emigrate, perhaps in France and will not get repatriated because they are not Roma. Roma will stay in Bulgaria, Romania, in other Balkan countries, where they will not disturb the rating of the French President. And of the Bulgarian politicians, in fact, because at least elections will be cheap.