The Controversy Over Roma People Shakes the Foundation of the European Union

Every year, some hundreds of thousands of foreign citizens are expelled by the EU member states. Only a small fraction is made up of criminals. They are mainly immigrants from third countries, guilty of not possessing sufficient resources to obtain the right to stay in this privileged part of the world. Are we therefore witnessing a psycho-drama started by a small thing and then propagated by the personal idiosyncrasies of some European leaders? Obviously not. Neither are we witnessing an important but purely symbolic question of principle that opposes two sovereignties, that of the European norm and that of the political will of the states. This dimension is obviously there, but what is more important are the practical consequences, both social and economic, of the case in question. 

by Ferruccio Pastore

The split that took place in the European Council on 16 September is without precedents. Not only for its visceral tones, which however send a worrying signal. The split was without precedents because it did not refer to material or institutional nodes, such as the modality of apportionment of resources or voting rights. The divide instead happened over the interpretation of a founding principle, never up to now questioned in such a radical and direct way: Are poor people also entitled to full-fledged EU citizenship? In particular, what happens when a poor group, with large sections of extreme marginality, is also perceived by public opinion and the dominant political discourse as a physically identifiable and homogenous ethnic group? What are the limits, both substantial and formal, that policy should be subject to in facing this type of situation?

The Institutional Clash

Even though both sides deny this was the problem, it seems like it was exactly this that led to the political rupture between the governments of France and Italy on one side and the EU institutions. First it was the Parliament which issued a hard resolution on 9 September; then, it was the Commission, where the meeting of 16 September witnessed a split, only temporarily patched by the final communiqués. *Every year, some hundreds of thousands of foreign citizens are expelled by the EU member states. Only a small fraction is made up of criminals. They are mainly immigrants from third countries, guilty of not possessing sufficient resources to obtain the right to stay in this privileged part of the world. These expulsions generally happen with tougher modalities than those currently criticized in France. These include repatriation without the direct use of physical force and with a financial incentive worth a few hundred euros. On one hand, the big forced expulsions of immigrants do not attract media attention and have the unanimous support of all governments and EU institutions. On the other hand, these small convoys of European citizens, mainly Romanian, are shaking the communitarian system. Are we therefore witnessing a psycho-drama started by a small thing and then propagated by the personal idiosyncrasies of some European leaders? Obviously not. Neither are we witnessing an important but purely symbolic question of principle that opposes two sovereignties, that of the European norm and that of the political will of the states. This dimension is obviously there, but what is more important are the practical consequences, both social and economic, of the case in question.

The Ghost of the Roma

We often hear in these days of stereotyped and hysterical media coverage, that the Roma people are the biggest European minority. Their exact number is difficult to estimate, although they are believed to amount to around 10-12 million people. This big transnational minority is spread all over the EU territory, but it is more concentrated in the eastern part of the continent, especially at the borders between the new member countries and those that are candidates for entry. In many debates, the ghost of the Roma hovers with the appearance of a people without state and dressed in rags, a compact and homogenous transnational caste of pariahs. If this was the case, the Roma question would in effect be a huge detonator under the European system, especially in relation to two fundamental pillars, that of free circulation and that of the expanding vocation to future enlargements. Future enlargements are scheduled to take place in the western Balkans, which are highly populated by Roma communities. Luckily, this is not as things are.

Those that we call Roma and that many national politicians, even in positions of high responsibility, continue calling 'nomads', are only a component, albeit important, of a much wider and not very cohesive galaxy, which includes for example the Italian Sinti, the Spanish Gypsies, and the Travellers in the British islands. These are all groups who speak different languages and have different cultural and religious traditions. Neither is their social and economic position homogenous: a majority of the Roma who live in central and eastern Europe is sedentary, and often live in urban areas mixed with non Roma population. The reality of the camps is a sad, but luckily marginal, specificity of Italy and other few rich EU countries. It is also controversial whether, with the abolition of the duty of visa for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens (2002) and then the admission of these countries to the EU in 2007, we really witnessed a boom of illegal settlements, which is indicated as the main cause of the current crisis. The traits and the dimensions of this housing and social emergency are not well known. The current French crackdown, similarly to the one that happened in Italy between 2007 and 2008, is based on scarce and approximate empirical knowledge of the 'problem' that needs to be resolved.

Impasse

This lack of knowledge, which partly depends on bad will and partly on real obstacles (such as the difficulty of having a census on an ethnic base, for both ethical and conceptual reasons), is an essential part of the problem. It leaves room to distorted and instrumental representations, and it does not allow for the elaboration of ad hoc strategies, whose impact can somehow be evaluated. We obviously need to do more. We need to invest more. Even, when necessary, through measures of control and law enforcement. But the measures taken by Italy three years ago and now relaunched in great style by France, are not conducive to anything. On Le Monde the great cartoonist Plantu summarized the impasse where Sarkozy ended up, by drawing an armoured but circular path. The path starts in the Hexagone, goes East and then comes back, with a little man in the corner observing and asking: 'Ah, c'est la le Gens du voyage?':  'Are these the People of the journey?', as nomads are called in the politically correct French jargon.

The first results of an ethnographic research which FIERI, under the direction of Pietro Cingolani, is carrying out in Romania and Turin confirm the cartoonist's intuition: many families expelled by France have already stated to travel back. And why should we be surprised, as we are talking about some of the most depressed areas of Europe, from which everybody migrates, not only the Roma people? The bombastic Paris-Rome axis appears today as a precarious alliance between two leaders in crisis. Partly this is the case. The strong reaction by the European Parliament and the Commission, this one weakened by the bad gaffe of the Commissioner Viviane Reding, are important evidence of the capacity of the Union to keep its head on its shoulders. But we must not undervalue the potential for contagion that the current situation holds. The crack that was opened goes deep into the foundation of the European project. It needs to be repaired soon and with high quality materials; otherwise it will open again with worse consequences.

 

* On September 29, the EU Commission has confirmed the intention to take first steps towards an infringement procedure against France for contravening EU rules on freedom of movement (BBC News).

The article was originally published in Affari Internazionali on September 19, 2010, with the title of 'L'asse Parigi-Roma sui Rom scuote le fondamenta dell'Ue'.

Ferruccio Pastore is Director of FIERI, a research institute of migration studies based in Turin, Italy.

Translation and adpatation by Laura Fano Morrissey.

Photo: Arthur Muliro

Are these the People of the journey?