BRUSSELS – The European Union, at long last, is taking a significant step to improve the lives of Europe’s millions of Roma. Rather than proposing a grand plan for EU-level action, the European Commission’s recently released “EU framework for national Roma integration strategies up to 2020” calls on each member state to write its own plan.
This approach recognizes that the most pressing needs of the Roma – improvements in education, housing, health care, and employment opportunities – are in the hands of member states, not the Commission. But putting the onus on national governments also reflects the caution with which EU institutions approach the deep social problems faced by the Roma.
The EU has woken up to these problems in the past two or three years, thanks, most recently, to the crisis in France last summer, which followed an influx of thousands of Roma migrants. Politicians have understood that the social exclusion and stigma suffered by Roma are a pan-European problem requiring an EU-level framework. But the general view is that Roma exclusion has proved intractable for many centuries, and that concerted action will not make much difference now.
In fact, few countries have ever really tried – and not owing only to a lack of resources. To be sure, ending Roma exclusion would require public spending on Roma communities to be orders of magnitude higher than it is now. But, even in an age of austerity, the amount required is small relative to EU spending on social inclusion or cohesion. Rather, the biggest need is to raise national leaders’ political will to combine policies and practices proven to work.