The European Union is stepping up its campaign to reverse centuries of oppression and rootlessness suffered by the Roma, who constitute the Continent’s largest minority of 11 million and fight for survival on the fringes of society. In December, the union made improvements in education, health and housing for the Roma, also known as Gypsies, a legal requirement for member nations, not merely a planning goal.
The European Union intends to earmark money for the task so member nations can no longer divert aid to more popular causes. The Roma continue to be scapegoated as outsiders who “imprinted terror among the citizens,” as city officials in Eforie, Romania, recently told The Wall Street Journal after summarily demolishing the homes of 20 Roma families, some who had been there for decades.
Europe’s task has not been made easier by the arrival of newer members in the East, like Romania, where the Roma are up to 10% of the population. Despite the dark lessons of Nazi history when Gypsies were rounded up for extermination, right-wing politicians continue to play to the crowds in demonizing Roma. In Slovakia, some 400 mayors have created a movement using health and safety regulations to shut down or wall off Roma communities.
Clearly, a change in the local politics of fear is crucial if there are to be real improvements in the lot of the Roma, who suffer intolerable rates of poverty and unemployment. Some politicians admit privately that better social welfare programs are needed, but they fear an immediate voter backlash if they speak up. Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission, the union’s executive branch, feels the European Union may ultimately have to issue its own Europe-wide rules to force the issue.
“Are we animals?” one of the Roma evicted in Eforie asked after his home was demolished in a crackdown. This is the dismal question European officials must press member nations to answer with humane reforms.