On the occasion of International Romani Day on 8 April, MEP Romeo Franz (Greens/EFA) spoke with EURACTIV about the continued challenges that Romani communities across Europe face and the importance of legally binding legislation.
Romeo Franz is a German MEP (Greens/EFA) and the first German Sinto in the European Parliament. He is the vice-chair for the Culture and Education Committee (CULT) and was the rapporteur for a report on the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies.
Could you briefly explain what International Roma Day is?
International Roma Day is a worldwide day of action to draw attention to the situation of Romani people – especially discrimination and persecution. The day is also used to celebrate the culture of this very diverse minority.
What issues are particularly in focus this year?
It varies, but the focus will certainly again be on the issue of antigypsyism, which is again showing serious growth during the pandemic. In Eastern Europe, for example, people with a Romani background are made out as scapegoats by politicians and also by the media and the majority society, as the ones who could transmit COVID-19 to mainstream society.
They were practically imprisoned in their neighbourhoods by the police – with little drinking water and the inability to maintain hygiene standards. When they wanted to leave, for example, to get food, they were sometimes beaten up by the police in the most brutal way.
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While antigypsyism was less of an issue in the racism discussion in Germany last year, it has recently come more to the fore. Do you think there is a growing awareness of antigypsyism in German society, as well as a willingness to fight it?
This is one of those things: While there are concrete efforts against antigypsyism as well as corresponding recommendations, antigypsyism is not a form of racism in a society where one can register a decline. This also reflects the fact that antigypsyism is deeply rooted in mainstream society, and therefore, it is very difficult to cure this disease of antigypsyism.
But I also see progress. One example: Romania, where numerous Romani people suffer discrimination and 80% of Romani people live in precarious living situations, was the first country in the EU to pass a law against antigypsyism two months ago. The law even provides for penalties ranging from three months to ten years, depending on the severity of the hate speech or discrimination. That’s a good sign, but of course, you have to implement [this law].
For me, this is an example of how you can actually take action against antigypsyism. At the EU level, there are often only recommendations. That simply doesn’t work. We need laws that oblige member states to actually implement inclusion strategies.
So far, Germany has not implemented the measures for Roma inclusion recommended by the EU. Do you think that with the increasing discussions about racism in German society, do you think German policymakers’ opinions are changing on this topic?
I am of the opinion that if Germany – also the states and municipalities – implement legal foundations, that inclusion strategies must be implemented together with the people affected on an equal footing. This will show that Germany takes this topic seriously and that measures do not only fulfil an alibi function.
But we also have positive examples, not just negative ones. In Baden-Württemberg, there has been a state treaty with the minority for six years. Here, the [Romani] state association that concluded this treaty is now an equal partner. The situation has therefore changed completely for the Roma minority in Baden-Württemberg. If there are issues where this minority is actually affected, this is immediately discussed with the state association and the minority council and then together with the ministry involved, they draft a proposal for a solution, which then goes directly to the state ministry.
This clearly shows that we can only solve the problem of unequal participation and antigypsyism together with the mainstream society and the minority. Baden-Württemberg could actually be a blueprint for all of Europe in this regard. The member states have already expressed interest in it, precisely because it has been so successful.
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At the recent EU Anti-Racism Summit, you said that “soft policies will only produce limited changes” in regard to the EU’s Roma Inclusion Strategies. What are the next steps to ensure that these policies are binding and what kind of progress is there on this front?
In September, I introduced a resolution in the European Parliament. It advocates equal participation for our people [the Roma] and that antigypsyism must be fought as a priority in the member states. It was also an evaluation of the past ten-year plan for Roma integration, which had very little success. This was simply because the recommendations for the member states were all voluntary and the countries, including Germany, did not show much interest in implementing a corresponding action plan.
This September resolution was adopted with 80% voting in favour. It formulates a great mandate to the Commission because it makes clear: “We want a law, we want a binding character in inclusion strategies for Romani people.”
Now I see it as my task to fight for an equal rights law for people with a Romani background in Europe so that nation-states are obliged to include us equally, and we get a successful implementation of EU inclusion strategies.
We should also remember this on International Romani Day. It is very important that we have this day to show that the civil rights of people with Romani background must be more prominent. The day must be the time when we make this change: Away from recommendations, away from lip service, towards action and towards a legal basis, so that we as people with a Romani background can finally live here safely and be allowed to have safe participation.