Friday, October 5, 2012





SOFIA—Small groups of accordion players are not an uncommon sight on the Paris and Brussels Metros. They make a living from the small change donated by passengers, one train and one day at a time. These street musicians are Roma taking advantage of their new status as citizens of all Europe. But they have a hard time doing it. Despite the commitments of Western European governments to uphold the rights of minorities in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, they remain hostile to the Roma’s westward migration.

Today, there are more than 500 illegal Roma settlements in France and the authorities seize every chance to crack down on them. French officials — among others in Europe — claim that the Roma are forced west by discrimination and a lack of opportunity in their home countries. In mid-September, France’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls and European Affairs Minister Bernard Cazeneuve signed a bilateral agreement with Romania for the voluntary repatriation of illegal Roma immigrants from France. Plans to sign a similar agreement with Bulgaria were abandoned because of the comparatively small numbers of Bulgarian Roma migrants to France.

As recently as the summer of 2010, the French Socialists — together with the European Commission and the European Parliament — protested attempts by the Nicolas Sarkozy government to repatriate Roma immigrants, considering it an act of discrimination. It took only two years for them to cross the battle line. France under Francois Hollande’s Socialist government recently repatriated about 2,000 migrants to their homelands as part of a semi-voluntary procedure involving €300 welfare grants as rewards. Interior Minister Valls also publicly called upon Romania and Bulgaria to do more to integrate their minorities.

Hypocritical double standards — criticizing Eastern European governments for their failure to integrate the Roma while refusing to treat them as regular European citizens in the West — reduce the chances of resolving the issue. The institutional weaknesses of Eastern European governments have certainly deepened the problems faced by the Roma community. The education, professional training, employment, and crime reduction policies for vulnerable communities in post-communist states are simply inadequate. The Roma’s clan-based nomadic culture has also proved resistant to some serious attempts at modernization and integration into the mainstream societies of Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.

The United States has long had its problems with its inner cities. Successive federal programs, starting with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, were focused on integrating poor, urban African-Americans into mainstream society. Ghettos still persist, but the success stories associated with U.S. racial minorities have increased. Europe’s ability to integrate its minorities has proved more problematic, despite the presence of sophisticated welfare networks and EU developmental programs. A growing number of non-European immigrants live in insulated communities in the cities of the Old Continent. They are recipients of generous welfare provisions, but they nevertheless refuse to integrate into the mainstream culture and society of their host nation.

The Roma may be Europe’s most significant internal migrant community. The weak post-communist governments of Eastern Europe — home to many Roma — have failed to produce and enforce efficient policies of integration. Western European governments and publics vocally support the rights of the Roma — but only as long as they remain in the East. Once they migrate West, they quickly lose the support of European liberals and advocates of multiculturalism.

It will obviously take considerable time and effort before the Roma issue is acknowledged as being a pan-European problem. The year 2005 saw the debut of a Europe-wide program — The Decade of Roma Inclusion — and it now nears its end with little evidence of success. Human rights advocates throughout Europe have vocally condemned discrimination against the Roma. But popular discriminatory behavior is only one side of the coin. The other is the inability of governments, European institutions, and civil society initiatives to successfully integrate the Roma communities into the modern world of contemporary Europe.

Ognyan Minchev is a non-resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Balkan Trust for Democracy.

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