There are between seven and nine million Roma in Europe, constituting the most disadvantaged population in the EU. Across Europe they are systematically discriminated against in education, housing, healthcare and employment as well as being subjected to racist abuse and attacks.
For many years, the issue of Roma inclusion has been discussed in the European Commission and was championed by the Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Vladimir Spidla.
In September 2008, there was a Roma Summit held under the French EU presidency, but it was nothing more than window dressing, plenty of handshaking and smiles to camera but nothing of substance.
The Second Roma Summit took place in April this year and issued a communication on the social and economic integration of the Roma people, together with recommend actions and a range of positive measures. States were clearly expected to actually do something.
So you would be forgiven if you thought that France and the other European countries had signed up to the positive integration of the Roma community, the opposition to racism and discrimination and to provide support for one of the most oppressed communities in Europe. But that’s not what is happening.
The Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has rightly condemned the racist expulsions of the Roma community from France and she has done so unequivocally: “I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority”.
In August, President Sarkozy agreed the deportations of Roma to Romania and Bulgaria under the guise of a security clampdown. Despite assurances to the contrary, a leaked memo sent to police chiefs indicated that “300 camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority”. The French Interior Minister’s chief of staff had signed it. Clearly the Roma community were being specificallytargeted.
In the last month, more than one thousand Roma have been deported to Romania or Bulgaria and over 8,000 have been deported since the beginning of the year. A total of 9,875 were deported in 2009.
The victimisation of the Roma clearly has echoes of the action of the Vichy regime against the Jews during the Second World War, a point made strongly by Justice Commissioner Reding.
Italy started deporting Romanians in 2007 under the guise of tackling crime following the murder of a woman in Rome, allegedly committed by a Romanian illegal immigrant. Romanians in Italy constitute about 1% of the population but are subjected to racist abuse and discrimination.
Right wing Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi is on record as saying that he “rejects the idea of a multi-ethnic Italy” and he is enthusiastic about the expulsions.
In Poland in July this year a crowd attacked the home of a Roma family in Limanowa, a small town in the South. A crowd gathered numbering around a hundred, some armed with petrol bombs, and tried to drag the family from their apartment. Only the arrival of the police and reinforcements from the anti-riot squad in Cracow kept the mob at bay. There were other similar cases.
And, of course, such stigmatisation of a minority population is very popular with the far right. In Hungary, the Jobbik party, a Christian Conservative Nationalist party, has a reputation for pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic politics and campaigns with violent nationalist rhetoric on the basis of “ethnic self-determination”. Not surprisingly, they applaud France’s expulsion of the Roma.
The Jobbik party got into Parliament for the first time this April on the basis of opposition to Hungary’s large Roma minority population. The Party’s vice-chairman Csanad Szegedi told Reuters: “We would force these families out of their dwellings, yes… Then, yes, we would transport these families to public order protection camps”. He clearly saw these camps as prisons, with curfews and a strict controlling regime.
The rise of racist sentiment across Europe is being encouraged by politicians who are using immigration as a vote winner in their local elections. By focusing discontent, particularly acute in this time of austerity caused by the financial crisis, on minority populations politicians can deflect attention away from other political issues. Raising the issue of immigration and playing the race card has always been a popular tactic for beleagured politicians.
There is a massive contradiction at the heart of immigration policy. The EU exists primarily as a trade body and it evolved from the Treaty of Rome. Modern arrangements for the free movement of capital and labour, so favoured by international business and neoliberal politicians, are the very opposite of immigration control. The dilemma is particularly acute for right wing politicians who want to support the interests of business and yet pander to the lowest level of popular prejudice.
What the right wing politicians – and an increasing number of centre social democrats – want is to cherry pick those people who are allowed to move around. There are calls for skills quotas, the equivalent of a kind of import quota on human beings, which negates the very basis on which the EU was sold to the populations of the member states. Free movement was taken to mean free movement, not a selection process.
And that is where the contradiction in the EU is most exposed. As a trade body designed to benefit large corporations it seeks to amorphise the labour market, letting free market competition determine who moves where and when. However the EU also consists of a large number of rich and different cultures, the integration of which challenges those racist assumptions on which many right wing politicians campaign for election.
A Europe that is worth the name has to defend its people and that includes all of its people. The Roma are citizens of the EU, with the right of free movement. There is no justification for the racist treatment they are getting at the hands of some of the most powerful states in the world.
When Sarkozy targets the Roma community, he strengthens the hand of racists and bigots all across Europe and that is why we should all be defending the Roma against state discrimination. Viviane Reding is absolutely right to criticise France. Ethnic cleansing, however it is brought about, is a crime.