The Gypsy Test

It is often said that the integration of the Muslim diaspora will be of crucial importance for the internal stability of Europe. For the countries of Central Europe the basic and much more important challenge will be overcoming the exclusion of the numerous Gypsy community

About 12 million people of Gypsy origin are now living in the European Union. An overwhelming majority of them do not regard themselves as Roma but usually they are not accepted as members of the nations with which they identify. Most of them live in Central Europe and constitute a significant minority in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania (from 5 to 10 %).

This percentage will grow in the coming decades, for they have a much higher birth rate than the rest of the shrinking population of the region. The most dramatic is the demographic situation in Bulgaria and, to a lesser extent, in Romania: the UN predicts that until 2050 the population of Bulgaria will fall by 30 % and of Romania by 20 %. The Gypsy population of the EU will also increase by hundreds of thousands of people due to the accession of Western Balkan countries (especially Serbia). Consequently, we can expect that the problem of exclusion of the Gypsies, often separated by a social and economic chasm from the rest of the citizens, will be exacerbated.

According to a European Commission report from 2012, entitled“The situation of the Roma in 11 EU member countries,” about 90 % of Gypsies in Central Europe live in poverty or on the verge of poverty. An overwhelming majority of them live in ghettoes, which are slums located on the outskirts of cities. The average number of persons living in one room is 2–2.5, while for non-Gypsies it is one room for one person. Gypsy districts are characterised by high incidence of various social dysfunctions (family violence, alcoholism, petty crime). EU research shows that about 35 % of Gypsies in Slovakia and Hungary and more than 60 % in Romania routinely experience hunger.

Unemployment among Gypsies is two times higher than for the general population. According to EU estimates, Slovakia has the highest difference in the region in this respect: Slovak Gypsies’ unemployment rate is five times higher than the rest of the Slovaks. Poverty is inherited due to very low level of education among the Gypsy population. In the 20–24 age group the percentage of persons with secondary education among Romanian Gypsies was six times lower than in the general population. The educational situation of the Gypsies is by far the worst in Romania and Bulgaria. From 15 % to more than 20 % Gypsy children in these countries do not go to school and usually take up unregistered work. Also in terms of social security the situation of Bulgarian and Romanian Gypsies is the worst. Only 40–50 % of them possess health insurance and just 25–35 % have some prospects of receiving an old age pension.

The very difficult social and economic situation of Gypsies in Central Europe is not markedly different from that of their kin in Western Europe. But in the countries of Central Europe they constitute a much larger section of the population. Moreover, the countries of Central Europe have a lower financial and administrative potential to deal with integration of Gypsies. Their integration is more difficult than integration of Muslims in Western Europe, for the material and social divide separating Gypsies from the rest of the population is bigger, while their social and cultural background (for example the very low status of women or hostile attitude towards the government) is less conducive to integration. In addition, the dislike of the Europeans towards the Gypsies, effectively leading to discrimination, is more serious than towards Muslims.

Of course, Gypsies pose a less severe direct challenge for European security than radical Muslims (terrorism) do. Unfortunately, also their degree of self-organization and social mobility is significantly lower. Among Gypsies in Central Europe, it is very difficult to find great sportspeople, film directors, writers or leading politicians, while in the West it is becoming the norm in the case of Muslims.

Central European Gypsies were the social group most painfully affected by the downfall of communism. Since then their situation improved to some degree but the prospect of a growing population of young, poor, uneducated and unemployed persons of Gypsy origin remains a great challenge for Central Europe. It is not only an economic and social but also a political problem. In 2008–2009, a group of Hungarian skinheads organized a series of attacks on Gypsies, killing six of them. In 2010 Jobbik, the extreme right Hungarian party gained an all-time high 17 % of the votes in the general election. The main preserve of Jobbik is East Hungary with the biggest number of Gypsy inhabitants. And in Bulgaria there have been numerous reports on buying Gypsy votes (the currency is food, alcohol or money; such methods were also used by Vladimír Mečiar, the authoritarian ruler of Slovakia in the 1990s). In the European Union Bulgaria and Romania are, alongside with Greece, the lowest-placed countries in the Freedom in the World ranking. The Gypsy problem also has an international aspect: in 2009–2010 Gypsies migrating from Bulgaria and Romania to the West created tensions in the relations of Sophia and Bucharest with France, which started to deport them. The Gypsy migration also became an argument against accepting these two countries to the Schengen zone.

In the coming decades the countries of Central Europe face a whole range of economic and social challenges connected to catching up with the most developed Western countries, which requires a second modernization leap (increasing competitiveness, creating an economy based on innovation). The alternative is falling into a trap of medium wealth and marginalization within the EU. For Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Slovakia, Serbia and Hungary success of the continued process of modernization will depend to a large degree on strengthening integration of the Gypsies with the mainstream of society.

There are no shortcuts here. Increased wealth in the countries of Central Europe does not have to mean assuaging the problem of Gypsy integration. An example of that is Greece from before the crisis. The situation of the Gypsies there was worse than in Slovakia or Hungary despite the fact that Greece was much wealthier.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

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