EU initiative risks turning Roma into entertainers, not real people with human rights

Despite all the EU’s good intentions, many of Europe’s Roma people still live in poverty. EPA/Zoltan Balogh

The Council of Europe recently announced a joint initiative with the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a charity led by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, to create a European Roma Institute (ERI). Billed as a “Roma-led” initiative, its declared purpose is to sponsor Romani artistic cultural production, to raise awareness of the Roma and to advise the Council of Europe on policy in relation to Roma.

The establishment of the ERI comes as the Council of Europe announced it would end its partnership with the European Roma and Travellers Forum, which it set up in the early 2000s as its own consultative body.

Wasted decade for Roma?

The partner on the ERI initiative, George Soros’s OSF, has been a key player in the promotion of Roma inclusion since the early 1990s. Soros set up a network of Romani NGOs as well as powerful in-house projects devoted to supporting a Roma voice.

In 2005, he initiated a partnership with the governments of ten states in central and eastern Europe under the heading “Decade of Roma Inclusion”. The idea was to get governments to assume the responsibility for the work that Soros’s civil society initiatives had pioneered.

As the decade comes to a close, critiques pointed to very little change on the ground save the emergence of a small group of Roma whose careers have so far revolved around the network of Roma NGOs. Soros now faces the challenge to launch a new initiative, to show that his political impact is not limited to post-communist Europe – and not least to provide further employment for the generation of Roma activists that he has nourished so far.

Closed circle

Western governments in particular reacted sceptically when the ERI was first announced in April 2014, as did the ERTF and the Romani Study Network. There was concern over the idea that ERI, if it became part of the Council of Europe, would embed cultural production into a political organisation.

Academics were worried that ERI’s declared ambition to “license research and teaching on Roma” would allow a circle of appointed individuals to interfere with the content of research and so potentially with academic freedom.

This concern was amplified by the fact that those individuals, who were at the time known to be part of the circle of designated leaders of ERI, issued an overt challenge to established academic research in Romani studies, claiming that it lacked representation from scholars of Romani ancestry and was therefore inherently biased.

George Soros has become Europe’s ‘go-to guy’ for Roma issues. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

In a well-choreographed effort to pre-empt the critics, the second attempt to launch ERI was announced on March 26, 2015 in a joint online commentary from the Council of Europe’s secretary-general Thorbjørn Jagland and George Soros. The first sentence of their comment read:

For more than four decades Europe’s Roma community have wanted to establish an institution that would give their music, art and unique traditions their own stage.

The text was accompanied on the OSF website by a photo of Romani musicians playing violins and guitars. It went on to promise that the institute would not only educate about Roma culture but also act as policy adviser to the Council of Europe and member states.

The public statement, which caught key advisers to the secretary-general by surprise, came just one week before a scheduled discussion on the topic at the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. In the very same week, it was announced that German parliamentarian Phillip Missfelder – who had tabled a motion on ERI at the Council of Europe back in March 2014, had been appointed as rapporteur on Roma for the parliamentary assembly, thus ensuring that the ERI would command support from all sides.

As for the concept itself, while Council of Europe officials continue to insist in informal conversations that the recruitment process for ERI’s management will be open and transparent, OSF has made it quite clear that it has a fixed idea as to who would run the institute. It hints at an alliance which in fact includes individuals who have been referring to themselves in discussions with Council of Europe officials as “the Roma elite”.

Some of them have a track record of rising up against both grassroots representatives of Roma, accusing them of everything from corruption to misogyny, and against academic experts in Romani studies, accusing them of a power monopoly.

Risk of tokenism

Overall ERI appears so far to be a conflation of financial muscle and top-down political power, pitched as a way of handing the power over the dissemination of knowledge on Roma to those who self-identify as Roma.

Such an initiative risks rupturing the respect that the Council of Europe commands as the leading European institution on human rights – and one that is governed by consensus rather than muscle.

It also risks using Roma as tokenistic representatives to legitimise an agenda that has become driven primarily by the need to maintain contracts for funded service interventions. Worse, it risks delivering a setback to the efforts of the past two decades which aimed to highlight the plight of the Roma as a human rights issue by foregrounding the more popular image of Gypsies as entertainers, best represented by the romantic imagery in the joint commentary by Jagland and Soros.

Finally, by putting forward the notion that knowledge on Roma should be the exclusive property of those who self-identify as Roma, it jeopardises the freedom of academics to engage in such studies on the basis of their qualifications and expertise. This means that non-Romani academics whose research might bring them to different conclusions than those that ERI prefers to showcase, might find themselves accused of prejudice and colonialism.

If this happens, it will discourage many from engaging in the study of Romani culture – and will thereby isolate Romani studies from mainstream academia and confine it to a sector that is politically managed.

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