Roma numbers are rising, while President Sarkozy's recent campaign against the Roma people highlights their growing persecution across Europe. Ben Judah argues that there is a real danger that a large proportion of the EU’s population could effectively end up being second-class citizens.

President Sarkozy’s controversial roundup and deportation of thousands of gypsies currently living in France has been condemned by many quarters—the Pope, the president of the EU Commission and a UN committee. The Roma in question are EU citizens who had every right to move to France, but not to stay indefinitely without a job.

Yet despite the high-level criticism of Sarkozy’s move, his policy signals a gathering tempo of persecution of the Roma people in Europe. Last week seven Roma were killed by a gunman in Slovakia, before he turned the weapon on himself. Eight similar killings have taken place in neighbouring Hungary over the past 18 months, and 30 firebombing attacks have been reported. In Rome, the mayor has begun demolishing shanties in an effort to push the migrants out of the city. In both Serbia and Kosovo there have been ethnic stabbings of large numbers of Roma, who were driven out by Albanians after 1999 and are not welcome to return. Closer to home, Roma have been driven out of Northern Ireland in racist attacks. These developments should worry us all. As history has shown, the widespread maltreatment of a large, stateless minority can have devastating consequences.

Experts believe that there may be up to 11m Roma people in Europe today, making their population greater than Austria’s or Sweden’s. While fertility rates are dropping to record lows in the new EU member states, Roma numbers are exploding. If the numbers hold, 20 per cent of Hungarians and 40 per cent of the country’s workforce will be Roma in 2050—compared to just 6 per cent in 2006. In the coming decades, the danger is that a large proportion of the EU’s population could effectively end up being deemed second-class citizens.

A report by the EU regional policy division emphasises that “the integration of the Roma is a precondition for sustainable long-term growth in many central and eastern European regions.” Yet today, little demographic research exists in the countries where the EU estimates the Roma make up more than 10 per cent of the population—such as Bulgaria or Romania—or just below that figure, such as Macedonia or Slovakia. Roma community leaders in Bratislava and Sofia have even claimed that the Roma could be in the majority by mid-century, if their high birth-rate born and a refusal to use contraceptives continues. Perhaps this fear explains why, as recently as 2003, Roma women were being tricked into sterilisations in eastern Slovakia.

In 2000, an initiative by 12 European countries declared this to be the decade of “Roma inclusion,” but NGOs note dryly that the high-point of Roma outreach was in the pre-accession phase of many new member states, especially Romania. After that, persecution mounted, and the socioeconomic facts speak for themselves. In Slovakia the Roma make up just 10 per cent of the population in normal education but 60 per cent in special schools. Less than 4 per cent of Hungarian Roma attend university. In 2009, over a fifth of Roma children in Hungary had been placed in special schools, cutting them off from the mainstream and consigning them to classes for the handicapped. Less than 10 per cent matriculate. These are the numbers of misery.

Europe will continue to see greater Roma migration and persecution unless concerted efforts are made to turn these statistics around. With politicians fixed on budget cutting and rescuing parlous finances, there is a slim chance of that now. As the president of one of the EU’s most powerful nations, Sarkozy has set a precedent that opens room for central European politicians to take more extreme measures. Already Hungarian far-right MEPs in the European parliament have called for a “mass internment” of Roma.

In the early 19th century it was, of course, the Jews who were similarly dispersed, impoverished and undergoing a demographic explosion. Anyone who suggested at the time that the descendants of this fractious, leaderless people would today call a powerful state in the middle east their home would have been laughed at. Yet it was more the tsarist persecutions of the late 19th century than the Holocaust that brought about Zionism. Today, the tentative beginnings of Roma activism have begun in eastern Europe—helped greatly by billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s funding, through the Open Society Foundation, of various youth schemes and rights forums.

Needless to say, such initiatives should be encouraged, and the picture is not universally bleak for the Roma. In Macedonia, for example, singers like Esma Redzepova are huge stars, and this year’s annual Guca trumpet festival in Serbia, in which Roma dominate, attracted a record half a million visitors. Roma bands are also a welcome addition to many a Balkan wedding and several leading stars earn huge fees jetting between Germany and Australia to play for the Balkan diasporas.

It would be a mistake to think of the millions of Roma in Europe as all wanting the same things or living in the same way. Roma (like Jewish) identity exists on a spectrum of cultural identification. Different groups of Roma practice different religions, speak different languages, and tribal sentiment far outweighs any wider sense of unity. It is also worth remembering that a tradition that rejects the essentials of modernity—a settled life, careers and education—will probably continue to hold the Roma back more than right-wing bigotry and persecution. But for myriad reasons, the journey these communities face in the 21st century will be a tough one. They are waiting for their own Herzl, whose task will be even harder. Perhaps impossible.

This piece was first published by Prospect.

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.