Last August, the French authorities started to deport thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma migrants back to their home countries. These Roma were said to be involved in illegal or even criminal activities. Since then, the French deportations have been at the center of international media attention and have been heavily criticized. They are, however, not a new phenomenon. In 2009, the French government already deported about 9,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria. And also other Western European countries (Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the United Kingdom) have expelled Roma, or intend to do so in the nearby future. Through these policies these governments exclude Romanian and Bulgarian Roma, who are EU citizens, from EU laws guaranteeing the free movement of citizens within the EU. In many of these cases, governments have considered the Roma a threat to national public security. On the basis of such a security risk assessment, so they argue, a differential treatment of the group should be considered an appropriate measure. Indeed, if it concerns people who pose a threat to the national public order an exception to the European constitutional right on free circulation can be made. But such an exception can only be judged as legal if it is based on a case-by-case assessment of individual situations, and it may never lead to the singling out of a specific ethnic group or amount to collective expulsions. In many of the current cases, however, it is highly doubtful whether these rules have been followed correctly. In a resolution adopted on September 9th, the European Parliament condemned the French policy and urged the French authorities to stop the expulsions immediately. The European Commission is currently carrying out an investigation in order to establish whether the French actions are indeed in line with EU law.

It is questionable, however, whether any legal interference by the EU will really stop the anti-Roma measures taken by these individual member states. The problem is that this matter is not simply an issue of legal rules, or policy strategy, it is also, and even more importantly, an issue of representational politics. The Roma are widely framed as exotic nomads who are heavily involved in illegal and criminal activities and who simply do not want to integrate into mainstream societies. As long as such a stereotypical representation of the Roma in Europe remains widespread individual governments may get away relatively easily with policies that target the entire group and portray that group as less-than-human. They even may be rewarded for that electorally. These stereotypical representations are a crucial part of how states currently deal with the Roma. They are a serious threat to current European minority policies as well as to EU principles more generally.

A permanent state of exception

The French situation clearly shows how the stereotyping of the Roma can currently be mobilized to legitimate a legal state of exception. The French MP and member of Sarkozy’s ruling party UMP, Jacques Myard, for instance, has stated that the key issue of the ‘European Roma problem’ is the way in which the Roma interpret and practice the right to travel freely in the EU. He said that their ‘excessive mobility’ and ‘related lifestyle’ cause serious security problems. Claiming that this ‘nomadic lifestyle’ is ‘medieval,’ Myard has suggested that there is a need for reconsidering and limiting the EU constitutional law on the free movement of persons in the Union. Calls for changing and limiting constitutional rights have been fashionable in contemporary Europe, and clearly not only among populists such as Geert Wilders, Filip Dewinter, and their East European compeers. Sarkozy’s controversial statements and policy, too, have contributed to making Romaphobia more acceptable in Europe. Sarkozy’s name can now be added to the list of presidents who have dubiously commented on the Roma – a list that already includes Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, Ivan Gašparovič in Slovakia, and Traian Băsescu in Romania.

The current migration of Roma within the EU has been framed as a dangerous form of ‘nomadism.’ Calling the Roma ‘nomads’ enables governments to portray them as essentially ‘different from others,’ and thus different from ordinary EU migrants. Italy is a striking example of a country that relied on this fatal reversal of fact and fiction. The Italian ‘laws to protect nomadic cultures,’ which were adopted in the late 1980s, enable the Italian authorities now to destroy, on a regular basis, sites where Roma live. By doing so their permanent settlement is made impossible. In Italy, ‘the protection of nomads’ has become a euphemism for prohibiting Roma to integrate and participate in Europe.

Several studies, however, have shown that the current migration patterns of Roma do not structurally differ from those of other Europeans. Just like other migrants Roma have socioeconomic reasons for trying to build a future elsewhere in Europe. Many Roma have also political reasons. In Western European countries they can still build a better future, often while simultaneously hiding their ethnic background. In East European countries, many of them have been deprived of all future prospects. Hopelessness as well as institutional and everyday forms of discrimination have compelled the Roma to look for a better life elsewhere, permanently or temporarily.

Simultaneously, in various places in Europe extreme violence against the Roma has erupted. The current expulsion fever should be seen against the background of these heavy escalations of violence. In Macedonia, Ukraine, and Slovakia, for instance, the Roma have frequently been tortured by police forces. In Italy and Lithuania, the authorities have relied on anti-terror laws to act against the Roma. Italy has introduced dubious state practices such as the fingerprinting of all Roma. In five of Italy’s main cities specific ‘security packages’ have been introduced in order to deal with them. In Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Latvia, extremists have targeted the Roma. In Hungary, more than twenty violent attacks on the Roma since early 2008 have resulted in nine deaths, including that of a five-year old boy. Remarkably, these attacks have not been reported very often in the media or only as one-off incidents. Moreover, these atrocities have not aroused much public or political indignation. When it concerns the Roma in Europe, we appear not to take the human rights and anti-discrimination charters that we have developed in post-Second World War Europe so seriously any longer.

The EU’s response

When Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice and Human Rights, recently compared the situation of the Roma in France with the Second World War most commentators understood her statement primarily as a reference to the gas chambers. However, in her speech for the European Parliament in which she made the comparison, she did not actually refer to the extreme outcomes of what happened then. Of course, from a strategic point of view her comparison may not have been the right one. She probably could have predicted that the comparison would trigger accusations of it being too radical and politically incorrect. Nevertheless, there are two good reasons why her comparison did make sense. First, the EU institutions and their post-War forerunners were founded exactly on the idea that they needed to avoid the discriminatory treatment of ethnic or religious minorities as had happened before and during the war. If we look at the recently leaked French governmental policy document distributed to local civil servants (a memo of the French interior ministry that urged French police officials to focus on Roma), we see precisely this: the discriminatory treatment of citizens on the basis of their ethnic identity.

Second, a reference to the Second World War is justifiable because it compels us to reflect upon the processes that lead to the representation of certain minorities as less-than-human. In the case of the Roma, already a group vulnerable to discrimination, such representations have now received the support of substantial parts of the population in Eastern and Western Europe. Most French citizens do not think the Roma deportations are problematic, and many Europeans may consider them a policy worthwhile pursuing. Opinion polls and weblogs throughout Europe clearly illustrate this tendency. The growing violence against the Roma and the lack of public outrage about these atrocities also highlight the trend. Collective stigmatization policies such as they are currently carried out in France and Italy implicitly ratify a process of dehumanization. Dehumanization, in turn, is often an element that precedes and stimulates ethnic violence.

In addition, the collective dehumanization of the Roma leads to further socioeconomic and political exclusion. According to the World Bank, poverty rates among Roma are higher than those of any other group in Europe. Substantial parts of the about ten million European Roma, and even three-quarters of all Romanian and Bulgarian Roma, live below the poverty threshold. Life expectancy among Roma is  lower than that of any other group in Europe. The Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency and the European Roma Rights Center have repeatedly reported that neither East nor Western European countries have done enough to provide their Romani citizens with equal opportunities.

European institutions continue to suggest that the existing EU instruments, such as the European social and regional development funds, can be and are indeed applied to help change the situation. So far, the EU does not want to take additional measures. Yet, due to the insufficient monitoring of how these funds have been used, and due to the lack of political will to initiate binding rules to change the situation in the EU member states, the Union itself has contributed to shaping the current impasse. Therefore, there is an increasing need to mobilize the competencies of the EU to develop policies that structurally differ from the non-committal and non-binding structures that currently provide the context for national policy programmes targeting the Roma. Without a more coherent European Roma strategy, the current impasse will only become bigger and the EU will increasingly share responsibility for the lack of improvement or the further deterioration of the problem. The most vulnerable Europeans will fall prey to the arbitrariness of those who do no longer take the European constitutional rights seriously.

In the end, the current situation impels us not only to think of better ways to protect the Roma, but also to safeguard more carefully than ever the very foundations of the European Union.

Huub van Baar is currently finishing his PhD thesis on the situation of the Roma in Europe, entitled The European Roma: Governmentality, Minority Representation, Memory. He works at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.