OPINION: I’ve seen Europe’s Roma left behind before, let's not let it happen again

by Zeljko Jovanovic | Open Society Foundations
Monday, 26 October 2020 08:00 GMT

A man holds a Roma flag during a protest in Budapest, Hungary, against the government's segregation of Roma children, February 23, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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Europe’s COVID recovery plan is a rare chance to include its poorest minority in a sustainable future

By Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office

Growing up in Serbia during the ex-Yugoslavian civil wars I remember how major crises and transitions left my family and friends struggling for survival with little help and many obstacles imposed by the state. 

Today, as a proud member of the Roma, Europe’s poorest minority, I feel a sense of trepidation listening to Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice-president, promote the ideals of a Green Deal transition from the ruins of the coronavirus pandemic to a low carbon society which leaves no one behind. 

Hearing his words and remembering my childhood, I reached out to Roma sisters and brothers in countries including Italy, Romania and North Macedonia. Many work in informal jobs as recycling collectors, construction workers, street sellers and musicians. 

Talking to them, I realized that these distant policy words could mean yet another empty promise for the Roma or a first hopeful chance. 

Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz and former Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis warn of the urgent need for Green Deal policies by citing Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

But I fear even progressive voices are not considering the flaws of the New Deal that left behind U.S. minorities who, like the Roma in today’s Europe are poor and vulnerable. 

The fact is Europe has already left the Roma behind. 

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Roma workers in large-scale state-owned or collective rural enterprises were the first to lose their jobs and the last to be hired under new market-driven economies. 

Similarly, the 2008 financial crash pushed the Roma deeper into poverty and gave rise to xenophobic far-right politics that fostered hatred for the 12 million European Roma. 

In theory, a green transition could be promising for Roma. 

Emerging industries like the renewable sector could provide stable income through employment, skilling up and financing small entrepreneurs. The renovation wave, a Green Deal initiative involving carbon-friendly building renovation, could provide energy supplies for households that lack reliable heating, electricity, and water.  

But will these projects reach the Roma families in Italy who collect recyclable materials and work in informal jobs without health protection or pensions? 

Can Roma families in the Slovak village of Jarovnice or in Hungary’s Nograd County benefit from programs for renewable energy supplies? They probably cannot. 

The Green Deal’s promise is unlikely to materialize for many Roma because the informal economy – seasonal work in tourism and agriculture, and construction work - is their major source of income.  

I fear regulations and financing that favour bigger, formal players in the industry will leave the Roma out of the loop. 

Increased competition for far fewer jobs will harm Roma workers and entrepreneurs who have ended up in the informal economy due to a combination of multigenerational racism, low education, and labor market barriers. 

When green heating becomes unaffordable for populations like Roma, they will be penalized for using cheaper, carbon-intensive alternatives.  

My argument is not to halt Green Deal policies but to make them truly inclusive.  

Where possible we should be formalising the informal sector in order to provide greater protections for workers and entrepreneurs. 

Green Deal policies should incentivise European governments to offer informal workers training, business advice and tax reductions and to simplify regulations. 

Progressive subsidies could encourage informal workers to shift into progressive work like reforestation. Informal and isolated settlements could be provided with affordable green energy infrastructure to help eradicate energy poverty. 

For the first time in recent history, we have the opportunity to adjust the course of a transition that will determine whether Roma are taken on board or left behind. 

We are faced with difficult circumstances AND political choices. The words of Vice-President Timmermans, therefore, should be more than a catchy slogan. They must be translated into laws, regulations and funding in order to ensure that no one is left behind - especially those who have already been left behind time and again.

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