Book Review: Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe

An inquiry into changing realities, signs of progress and the barriers that just don’t seem to go away, by Nando Sigona and Nidhi Trehan

TVR Books | Camilo C. Antonio | February 2010

And Who Is a Gypsy?

Few seem to care about Europe’s Gypsies, who have been a familiar presence in Central and Eastern Europe for 1,000 years. And even fewer seem to piece together the mesh of social exclusions and disenfranchisement, resulting from chronic unemployment, that have become the norm for millions of EU Romani citizens.

Some do care, but for various reasons – including those with a pious attitude with a sense of guilt toward a questionable population group that cannot be referred to as Nachbar in Not – our Neighbors in Need. Or those voters who’d rather not be reminded that begging on the EU’s sanitized streets is the only option for some Romani migrants. Or those politicians who would just as happily wipe them out, if they could get away with it.

In and around those extremes, there are a number of veteran scholars and researchers who converged in Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre to endow and take in multidisciplinary perspectives during marathon talks on Jan, 14-15. The conference was directly related to a mapping exercise and research project under the auspices of the John Fell Oxford University Press Research Fund. Around 120 participants, comprised of Romani and non-Romani scholars of different academic specialities, were brought in to meet politicians and NGO activists from 18 European countries. The participation of Romani and those from the CSE region was enabled by a grant from the ERSTE Foundation in Vienna.

Debate at the conference called for urgency in addressing the shameful side of Europe’s uncivilized treatment of these populations. Insisting on a new framework for understanding Romani mobility, the discussion aimed at deconstructing the ideologies that lead Western states to block free movement.

"Although the EU has put the Roma issue on the political agenda," warned Professor Peter Vermeersch, "this good intention can easily pave its way to hell – a manipulative strategy of mobilizing voters along ethnic lines to win the support of Euro-sceptic citizens, which further might lead into more serious political and cultural conflict."

Possible clues to the manifold issues can be found in the book, Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe, a compilation of essays from different disciplines by Romani as well as non-Romani scholars and activists. The editors, Nando Sigona and Nidhi Trehan, circle around the pivotal events that define the extensive deconstruction that began with the fall of the Iron Curtain, which ended the socialist economy. As a result, a new geopolitical order brought "an affirmation and consolidation of neo-liberal policies and a redefinition of political and ideological boundaries" along with various negative impacts on Romani peoples.

The contributions are divided up in two parts, the first exploring the Romani issues at the European level, the second, the national and local domestic perspectives. As a whole, the essays emphasize and demonstrate the need to understand Romani politics as multi dimensional at the state, regional, and local levels as well as within Romani culture itself.

However, the book is by no means a comprehensive investigation of the overarching question posed by the editors: What exactly went wrong? The book does not claim to present a watertight analysis of poverty, ethnic mobilization and the neo-liberal order, but rather to provide an exceptionally diverse picture of the contemporary discourse on those themes that impact Romani migrations.

"After 20 years of initiatives targeted to promote Romani social inclusion and fight their socio-economic marginalization, the situation seems to be even worse than it was before 1989," author Sigona contends.

Most importantly, the book introduces a cast of the characters who are playing key parts in the changing story, featuring Romani voices and their interrelationships. It also follows the shifts and changes of role models and the ways they move in public spaces with opposition and resistance. This can be particularly seen in Iulius Rostas’s contribution, which explores Roma participation in the public life in Romania and why, despite the openness of the legal system for minority participation, the Roma are poorly mobilized.

Another example is the chapter on Trehan’s conversation with Victoria Mohácsi, who represented the Hungarian Liberal Party in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Armed with work experience from the World Bank and the Soros Foundation, Mohácsi advocated EU-level Roma policy that cuts across four areas: housing, health care, education and employment. On the question of the educational disintegration of Romani children, she took positions not entirely concordant with other Romani leaders, arguing that money was not the obstacle but rather one of enacting apt laws.

Moreover, the quasi-historical survey by Jud Nirenberg, Romani writer and activist, gives us a glimpse into "the explosion of Romani political life" in the 1990s – a period when private foundations like George Soros’ Open Society Institute entered the CEE region to stimulate civil society and when many Roma formed NGOs and political parties. Between the lines, this and other chapters tell us, a new situation has evolved in which, in the struggle for new and powerful benefactors, critical Romani voices are finally being given the chance to be heard, by venting despair – and sitting in advisory bodies along the sides of real power structures.

"It shows that the responsibility to forge the most effective emancipator strategies devolve upon Romani people themselves," renowned French philosopher Etienne Balibar ended his Laudatio pointing out where the book’s power lies. "It is in the European democrats’ interest to fight the resurgence of racism, for invention of a ‘more perfect Union’."

Upon returning to Vienna from the conference historian Gerhard Baumgartner, who presented at paper at the Conference on the Roma movement in Austria since 1945, moderated a symposium at the Albert Schweizer Haus on "Roma Discourse: Racism in times of Crisis". Several Romani spoke of the experienced discrimination and criticised the discourse treating them as a socio-economic problem rather than as part of the solution.

"There is marked difference between Roma groups in Austria and those in CSE," Baumgartner explained. "Those groups include around 45,000 people who mostly came with the wave of Gastarbeiter-migrations, but still are not identified as Roma."

And who is a Roma?

"No list exists, because there is no ethnic profiling of Roma," he admitted, "which is fortunate, since any such good could easily be offset by dangerous implications and consequences."


Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe

Poverty, Ethnic Mobilization, and the Neoliberal Order

Edited by Nando Sigona and Nidhi Trehan

Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

Available by special order at Shakespeare & Co.

Other articles from this issue