Why does Europe need the Roma?

May 2024 -7 minutes read

The Declaration of Robert Schuman on May 9, 1950, which became the foundation of today's European Union, is based on the idea that Europe as a political project will be a guarantee of peace and prosperity. The declaration states that Europe will not be built all at once, nor according to one plan, but through concrete achievements that build solidarity.

This solidarity has been tested several times during crises over the last two decades, especially after the financial crash of 2008, the migration wave of 2015, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, inflationary and energy crises, and the war in Ukraine. Now, seventy-four years after Schuman's declaration, French President Emmanuel Macron speaks of the mortal danger facing the European Union. 

In his recent speech at the Sorbonne University, Macron outlined his vision of the most important threats to the survival of the Europe founded by his compatriot Schuman. However, Macron talks about solidarity in a different way, which is unity around the concept of strategic autonomy that he introduced back in 2017. At that time, his idea was not welcomed by the most important members of the European Union. However, on one hand, the views of the former and perhaps future President of the United States, Donald Trump, on Russia and European security, and on the other hand, Russia's attack on Ukraine, have led many to reconsider whether Macron's insistence on strategic autonomy is grounded in reality.

In today's context of global geopolitical and technological changes, continuing to build Schuman's Europe, which Macron believes can only survive through strategic autonomy, requires a fundamentally different paradigm or way of thinking about politics, economics, and culture in Europe. What neither Schuman nor Macron have realized so far – or at least have not emphasized, because they focused on states as the basic elements of Europe, not citizens – are the peripheries of our societies that states have been left to fend for themselves. It is precisely there, on the periphery of national politics, economics, and culture, that the potential for a fundamentally different view of systemic problems lies, and then some of the answers to Europe's key challenges.

Far on the periphery of our societies, Roma can be a litmus test for a new perspective. Schuman's Europe has shown the systemic problems of the market economy and liberal democracy, which, combined with discrimination, have left most Roma at the bottom of our societies. Although Roma are not the only group that has been collateral damage of all positive transitions and crises, the fall of Communism for example, the lives of most Roma in Europe resemble those in the poorest regions of the world.

The question is not whether Roma need Europe. This question has been answered many times before, and there have been many efforts to try to address the problems Roma face through the process of joining the European Union and accessing European funds. We are nowhere near a solution, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the consequences of such a situation affect not only Roma but the whole society, financially, politically, and morally.

Although contrary to stereotypes regarding Roma, and especially political decisions made in the last 30 years, the fate of Europe is closely connected to its largest, youngest, and most loyal minority – the Roma. Therefore, let’s put aside the question of how Europe can help the Roma and asking instead: what can the Roma do for Europe?

Why does the European economy need the potential workforce of Roma?

Around six million Roma living within the European Union numerically match the population of medium-sized EU member states like Denmark. The other six million living outside the European Union are similar in population size to Serbia. Moreover, Roma constitute the youngest population among the citizens of European countries facing the demographic reality of ageing. Out of the six million Roma living in the EU, over a third (35%) are younger than 15 years old, meaning that 2 million Romani children, comparable to the total population of North Macedonia, Latvia, or Slovenia, present a unique opportunity for the European Union. 

From 2009 to 2023, the working-age population of the EU decreased from 272 to 263 million. Projections show a further decrease to 236 million by 2050. This trend threatens the EU’s economy and its competitiveness on the global stage. Although Roma represent a significant potential workforce, policymakers continue to systematically neglect our possible contributions. A very high percentage – 56% – of young Roma who are not engaged in education, training, or employment is five times higher than the EU average of 11.7%, despite the labor shortage. With an employment rate of only 43% for Roma aged 20-64, and even lower among Romani women (28%), there is a significant economic and social cost to this neglect. 

Therefore, the numerous and young Roma population represents a latent and neglected force that, if empowered and included in the workforce, can significantly help mitigate the economic effects of the declining working-age population. 

Why are Roma voters and candidates necessary for democracy in Europe?

Macron, along with other leaders in the European Union, explains support for Ukraine as the defense of liberal democracy and values. However, within the Union itself, undemocratic practices such as voter coercion, political corruption, and clientelism undermine the integrity of democracy. These problems are often marginalized and considered issues only when they occur outside the borders of the European Union, which should be addressed by its foreign policy. This highlights a troubling paradox: while the EU staunchly defends democracy beyond its borders, the lack of adequate defense of democracy in its own backyard creates a vacuum susceptible to exploitation by forces advocating autocratic and anti-European policies. 

Faced with growing discontent due to poverty and unemployment, the younger generation tends towards traditionalist, antidemocratic forces. Within this electorate, Roma under the age of 15 are proportionally three to four times more represented than among the majority population.

Young Roma represent a significant number among first-time voters. Therefore, those advocating for democracy, rule of law, and values such as equality, human rights, and minority protection have not only a moral obligation but also a political interest in establishing a different relationship with Roma, protecting voters and thereby democracy.

Why are Romani artists and cultural workers necessary for unity and social cohesion in Europe? 

The security policy of the European Union increasingly emphasizes weapons procurement. However, the hybrid warfare being waged involves inciting cultural wars within EU member states. Cultural wars create extreme polarization around key values on which the European Union is based, such as solidarity, equality, and freedom. So weapons alone are not enough to respond to the cultural wars among European Union citizens.

Unfortunately, the ruling political elite underestimates the power of culture and reduces investments in culture. As a result, cultural institutions, industries, producers, and artists who promote and defend European values are increasingly forced to fight for survival. Thus, all these forces have far fewer resources to spread messages in support of unity and solidarity than those advocating for the division and hatred that undermines the cohesion of our societies. Right-wing and extremist politicians use culture as a weapon for "us against them" politics. The extreme right exploits prejudice against the Roma to use them as "the others" across Europe, from Portugal to Bulgaria.

The potential of Romani culture and art lies in the fact that Roma have never spread messages of hatred but rather of coexistence, humanism, and peace. Investing in Romani culture is part of the response to the cultural war. We have never been a group that posed a threat to the security or prosperity of our societies. As history shows, we have fought for "us." If there has been anything positive, perhaps the only one so far, in the interaction between Roma and non-Roma, it is the domain of culture. Investing in this domain will be necessary to weaken opponents of the European idea itself.

All in all, these kinds of questions are an intellectual test for seeking answers that can lead to different thinking, not only about Roma but also about Europe. Fundamental changes in the position of Roma, and others in similar situations, are not only the responsibility of states and political elites; European societies as a whole must mobilize to build a Europe for the 21st century. Neglecting Roma weakens Europe's economic strength, political stability, unity, and cohesion, as well as its credibility and competitiveness on the global stage.

This article was first published on Novi Magazin.


Zeljko Jovanovic


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