Over the last ten years I have taken part in about 50 major European Commission conferences on Roma issues. Many were in the early years. I thought initially that conferencing was a way to achieve change. Last year I went to just one EC conference. After the meeting I wrote a piece about structural racism that was published by the European Voice. The “Extraordinary Meeting on Roma” was extraordinary proof of structural problems and ingrained racism within the Commission. Only two speakers out of 29 were Roma.
I was invited this year to another EC conference. It will be my last.
This meeting in Brussels on the 15th of March had 25 speakers. Again, two of them were Roma. Two EC directors (senior management) appeared, read what somebody else had written for them, and left. They didn’t listen to anybody else’s presentation, and they did not take questions. Each of the middle management bureaucrats from the Commission did the same. They showed up for their panel and then promptly left.
But what can you expect when that’s what their boss does? I have never seen Vice-President Reading – the highest-level Commission member in charge of Roma issues – take the time to listen to anything Roma practitioners had to say or to ask questions of them. She reads the speeches someone else wrote and leaves.
Most of those in charge of Roma issues have weak or nonexistent hands-on or academic experience (Even the best people in the Commission cannot claim more than touristic exposure to Roma communities.) Virtually their only opportunity to engage with Roma experts and practitioners is at these conferences.
But they don’t engage. The high level bureaucrats come – deliver the sermon; we pray, take our communion (there is always free lunch and coffee), and discuss among ourselves. Meanwhile those on high attend to more important business.
This Friday I did not want to play this game anymore.
The meeting was filled, as usual, with a good number of Roma with wide-ranging expertise as well as (non-Roma) Roma experts. Together, the directors and midlevel managers from the Commission – who came to tell us what we should do – had far fewer hours spent on Roma issues than any single one of us.
And for the first time it hit me that in fact we should behave like these senior managers. And in fact, I am busy with more important things too. I have 30 children from the ghetto who look forward to seeing me at basketball practice tomorrow. I have Alberto, Totonel and Andrea hoping I’ll take them home for the weekend and make pancakes and fruit salad. If I stay to listen to the sermons I will lose that chance. So I talked and walked out. A few others did the same.
Civil society should walk out. The way most EC senior managers deal with Roma issues is not only irresponsible, it is disrespectful and deeply racist. And we should call them on it.
First and foremost, the Commission needs to publish and adhere to a basic minimal standard of cooperation developed with, rather than dictated to, the Roma civil society.
The European Parliament should initiate an independent investigation of the way the European Commission uses public money on Roma. It might help transparency and accountability – things the Commission requires from everybody but itself.
The European Commission is not the almighty Church of Social Inclusion. Its imperious behaviour is an embarrassment for Europe and a major impediment to social progress. Walk out and demand change!