EU citizenship, Roma mobility and anti-Gypsyism: time for reframing the debate?

Nando Sigona

Given the limited results achieved to date by the EU and EU member states in addressing the multiple exclusion of the Romani people in Europe, it is time to rethink some of the assumptions on which past initiatives have been built. Here I would like to suggest, very briefly, three possible ways and directions for reframing the current debate on the Roma in Europe.

1. The EU and the Romani communities
In a recent article, trying to answer the question ‘why have the Roma become a target and a scapegoat in France today?’ the French sociologist Éric Fassin reminded us that the ‘object of phobia is not to be mistaken for its source’ and that the ‘explanation of politics is of political nature’.  These remarks suggest that in order to understand what is happening in the EU today in relation to Romani communities we may need to turn our gaze away from the Roma and try, instead, to first focus on the broader picture: that is on the EU, an institutional and political construction that has undergone two decades of transition, enlargement and institutional, economic and social restructuring and is currently under incredible pressure as a result of the financial and bank crisis and then try to locate the Roma within these processes.

The Roma are a testing ground for the EU project, not an exception, but a founding part of the EU despite the lack of adequate institutional representation. The current attempt to curb their mobility (as well as their right to establish themselves in another member state) challenges one of the very pillars of the European Union and calls into question, at a time of major structural tensions, the capacity of the EU to fully embrace its mandate vis-à-vis mounting nationalist demands of member states.

2. Poverty and anti-Gypsyism
As I have shown with my colleague Nidhi Trehan in Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe: poverty, ethnic mobilization and the neoliberal order (Palgrave, 2009) apart from structural tensions resulting from the quick economic transformation, the transition towards capitalism has also been characterised by a search for foundational myths to re-define the relationship between state and nation after the fall of Communist ideology. In such a context, nationalist movements have acquired strength and, alongside them, so have numerous far-right racist and xenophobic groups that have managed to etch out increasingly large spaces in the political life of most European countries. This overall slide to the right, exacerbated by the existing confusion in the social-democratic camp, has turned the Roma, a minority without significant political representation, into a preferred target for racist campaigns that at times culminate in overt displays of violence.

However, in contemporary Europe, racism against Roma does not only concern some extremist fringe elements. Indeed, Eurobarometer surveys underline just how widespread prejudice and stereotypes about this minority are. Interestingly, despite this widespread intolerance towards the Roma in Europe, terms such as anti-Gypsyism and Romaphobia have only in the mid-2000s entered EU’s political vocabulary.

3. Anti-Gypsyism and modernity
The history of Romani communities in Europe is dramatically marked by episodes of mass persecution, violence and discrimination perpetuated by both institutional and non-institutional agents. The mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Roma systematically carried out by the Nazi regime before and during World War II was the tragic culmination of a series of events, rather than an isolated episode. The construction of the Romani communities as a ‘race of criminals’ genetically inclined to crime, was a central component of the ideological apparatus that provided a ‘justification’ for the genocide of European Roma.

To understand the contemporary spread of anti-Gypsyism in a neoliberal Europe and the link between the racial criminalization of the Roma and discriminatory policy and practice, we should bear in mind that anti-Gypsyism is not a new phenomenon; nonetheless, in its current configuration, it is strongly intertwined with the transformations that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, the consolidation of liberal democracies and neoliberal economic principles in the European Union, and linked to the process of pauperisation that many Romani communities are undergoing.

Overall, a new critical approach should emerge that addresses the root causes of Roma exclusion (which include an understanding of the history of exclusion and its broader place in the history of Europe) and places the successful participation of the Roma to the European polity at the core of the EU project where they belong.