The Greatest Threat to Europe

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Europe will never fully democratize until the Roma enjoy the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as their European brethren.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Today, Europe has left war behind. In place of jostling empires, there is the European Union, a modern family beset by the usual bickering but nothing that a smothering bureaucracy can’t handle. Even Sarajevo, where the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked world conflict in 1914 and a ghastly siege claimed thousands of lives in the 1990s, is relatively quiet.

But Europe is not peaceful. It faces a grave threat to its identify as a prosperous, multicultural space.

Perhaps you think that I’m talking about the Eurozone crisis and the consequences of financial ruin that can still be felt in Greece, Portugal, and the rest of the economic periphery of the continent. Or that I’m referring to the prospect of the European Union’s collapse if the United Kingdom hands in its membership card (if such a thing as the UK still exists after September when Scotland votes on independence).  Or that I’m concerned that the far right will win big in the upcoming European parliament elections in May and Eurosceptical parties will exert greater influence over an institution that they’d basically like to abolish.

These are all troubling trends. But Europe faces a deeper and more disturbing threat. If we look a little closer at the agenda of the extreme right, we get warmer. Parties as diverse as Jobbik in Hungary, the National Front in France, and Golden Dawn in Greece have identified a common enemy — the Other, the non-European, the foreigner. Much of the vitriol of the xenophobes has been directed toward Muslims over the last dozen years (a reprise of several centuries of anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish sentiment). Immigrants from South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have also suffered their share of abuse.

But the people who are the most vulnerable and the most victimized in Europe today are the Roma. Their experience of racism and discrimination is the single most powerful argument against the notion that Europe is a kinder, gentler world power. The xenophobia that connects movements and political parties on either side of the old Iron Curtain threatens the very modern identity of Europe — the entire complex of institutions committed to rule of law and human rights, as well as the economic bargains designed to “harmonize” (to indulge in Eurospeak) the economic differences that persist between and within European countries.

Anti-Semitism, August Bebel once said, is the socialism of fools. Today, Idiots International has fully embraced the anti-Roma agenda.

Like Jews in the first half of the 20th century, the Roma are stateless. They have been discriminated against since practically the beginning of their arrival in Greece nearly a millennium ago, after an undocumented migration across Byzantium from their point of origin in India. Various state apparatuses — Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian — tried to force them to give up their nomadic lifestyle. They were rounded up and interned in 18th-century Spain. The Nazis killed several hundred thousand Roma in an oft-forgotten chapter of the Holocaust.

Today, Roma represent about 10 percent of the population of Romania. Large numbers also live in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia. With 10-12 million Roma in Europe overall, they are Europe’s largest minority group. But there is little strength in numbers. They are a heterogeneous community divided by nationality, language, customs, and historical experience. They also experience more discrimination than any other minority group in Europe.

This anti-Roma racism is largely directed toward Eastern European Roma. When the EU moved eastward, first to the northern tier of Central Europe and then to the Balkans, many Roma moved west, to escape discrimination or to find work or both. They often encountered the same racism they thought they’d left behind. The Italian government in 2008 and the French government in 2010 deported large numbers of Roma, primarily from new EU members Bulgaria and Romania or non-EU areas of the Balkans.

Although Roma faced considerable prejudice over the years in Western Europe, a measure of multiculturalism prevailed in the West during the Cold War years. In a recent New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik describes the situation for Roma in France: “The Roma have not just contributed to French culture out of proportion to their numbers — the great Manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt, for instance, created one of the few styles of jazz entirely outside America — but have even become a sort of exotic ornament of the French state, with a special administrative category all to themselves.” That exoticism extended to cultural stereotypes of Roma as “free spirits” who sustained a Bohemian lifestyle long after Bohemia had become a staid part of Czechoslovakia.

In some ways, the Cold War was a pause in the hostilities conducted against the Roma in the east as well. In Communist Eastern Europe, Roma certainly did not live in a workers’ paradise. They had to submit to the same social engineering as the rest of Communist society. But they did achieve some progress. They had jobs (albeit often unskilled labor), their children went to school (albeit often lesser quality schools), and there was some social mixing in the new apartment complexes built by the state. With the end of Communism, even that modest progress vanished. Unemployment surged, skyrocketing above 90 percent in certain areas.

Many have compared the situation of Roma to that of African Americans in the United States prior to the civil rights movement. There are some similarities. But as civil rights activist Michael Simmons, who has worked on Roma issues for many years, told me in a 2012 interview, “if you’re in Eastern Europe, even today, Roma are invisible. They don’t clean hotel rooms. They don’t carry your bags. They don’t drive taxis. They aren’t the orderlies at the hospital. They don’t even have what I call the ‘colored jobs’ in the United States. The result is that they don’t have those dysfunctional ‘positive’ relationships with the majority culture that are so common in the United States.”

With a surge of nationalism also came a spike in anti-Roma sentiment, bringing to the surface what had been latent for many years. Attacks against Roma spread throughout the region. In 2008 and 2009, a group of right-wing extremists went on a killing spree in Hungary, their victims including a five-year-old child. Last year, three of the culprits received life sentences. But the investigation was, frankly, an embarrassment — the police tried to dissuade the family of two of the victims from reporting the attack and then urinated on crime scene evidence — and it’s still unclear whether there was high-level state involvement in the killings.

A new report by Harvard’s FXB Center of Health and Human Rights, documents these frightening developments in Hungary. Widespread organizing by neo-Nazi groups, a persistent pattern of violence against Roma, a national government that is indifferent to these trends, and widely held racists beliefs by the majority population all contribute to a situation dangerously similar to the pre-genocidal conditions that existed in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

What makes the situation in Hungary different from other countries in the region with high levels of anti-Roma sentiment — for instance, Slovakia, where a neo-Nazi recently won election as a regional governor — is the flow of traffic between the extremists and the mainstream. “The Hungarian Guard, for instance, was established by Gabor Vona, and he was also president of Jobbik, a political party with influence in parliament,” observes Magda Matache, a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard’s FXB Center. “Mainstream political parties are now trying to have a discourse as popular as Jobbik’s. They are competing to see who is more extreme rather than who is more democratic.”

Many Roma have simply left. In 2009, 39 Roma fled the Hungarian village of Janoshalma after being threatened by the Hungarian Guard and asked to leave the country by the mayor. They applied for political asylum in Strasbourg.

Others have stayed and fought back. Bela Racz, who works with the Open Society Fund in Budapest, told me last year of what he and others did to keep the Hungarian Guard away from their village. They blocked entrance to the village with their cars and threatened the Guard back. “Some villages did exactly what we did, blocking with cars,” he recounted. “Other villages set up parallel demonstrations, which I think is a mistake. They demonstrate, we demonstrate, and then we shoot at each other? No, we should just block the village. We have the right to protect ourselves if the police show no interest in protecting us. We should just say no to racism and to these Guards.”

One obvious liberal solution to the problem is education: tolerance trainings, inclusion of Roma sources in school curricula, desegregation. But it’s not the uneducated who by and large join Idiots International. “We’ve done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory,” Maria Metodieva, who works on Roma issues in Bulgaria, told me last year. “The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you’ve been studying in a mixed environment and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism. The illiterate, not having even primary education, are not supposed to know much about these things.”

Organizations like the Open Society Foundation have spent considerable funds to provide education and training for Roma. At one level, this strategy has been a great success, measured by the number of Roma NGO workers, political representatives, and EU officials. But the gulf has, if anything, widened between Roma and non-Roma society. “The better-educated, better-prepared, smarter Roma are considered an even bigger threat to the status quo than the illiterate poor,” Roma activist Orhan Tahir told me in 2012 in Sofia. “They say that it is better to have illiterate poor people, who can be more easily manipulated than to have a class of well-educated Roma, who could compete for the same resources.”

In Sofia, last December, Roma in Bulgaria were fed up with the government’s failure to address their concerns. They occupied the office of the deputy prime minister and demanded that she meet with them. The protestors want Roma to be able to learn the Romani language in schools; they want to participate in a debate on a new constitution; they want a new ministry for minority issues.

Waves of protests have rolled through Bulgaria over the last year. But Orhan Tahir doesn’t see the Roma Occupy Movement and these protests joining hands. “These groups perceive themselves as ‘elitists,’ and many of them do not welcome the civic participation of minorities because they are afraid of minorities,” he wrote to me in a recent email communication. “Indeed they believe that one of the minorities, the Turks, is over-represented in this government, and the other large minority, Roma, in their view has voted for the Communists. So they consider the minorities ‘guilty’ in some extent for the current political configuration. This narrow way of thinking in terms of ethnicity and class is among the reasons for the lack of mass support for the protests.”

As for Hungary, everyone is waiting for the elections in April. The polls show the right-wing party Fidesz with a commanding lead and Jobbik getting nearly 10 percent of the vote. But Magda Matache remains optimistic. “The Hungarian population might have now a different opinion than what the polls have shown,” she told me. “I hope that the elections will resolve part of this problem, and the Hungarian population will show that they as European as other Europeans and share the values of equality of all.”

But this is not just Hungary’s problem. Europe has been changing from below for some time thanks to immigration and low birth rates. Multiculturalism is not a choice in a school curriculum — it is a demographic fact. The far right — and many of its quiet supporters among mainstream conservative parties —wants the impossible: the ethnic homogeneity of a bygone (and imaginary) era. The Roma complicate this vision because, except for the few who can “pass,” they are a visible reminder of diversity. Whether at a federal, national, or local level, Europe will never fully democratize until the Roma enjoy the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as their European brethren.

In 1914, Europe fractured into a million warring pieces. Let’s hope that, 100 years later, Europe can manage its differences in a more constructive and peaceful way.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article first appeared. He recently completed an Open Society fellowship in Eastern and Central Europe.