Roma community is an important part of the European Union and European family, and it accounts, according to estimates, for at least 1 % of the entire EU population. Although Roma have been part of the European family for ages, they still face severe discrimination on all levels. This discrimination also applies to the political sphere, where Roma are severely underrepresented (European Commission, 2020). In my project, I conducted an analysis of the political representation of the Roma community in the European Parliament, focusing on their affiliations within the political landscape. This investigation used an interview with Members of the European Parliament to analyze the current situation of Romani politicians. By employing qualitative modes of inquiry, I also attempt to illuminate the motivations of different MEPs with Roma origins to start a political journey and actively promote Roma’s political emancipation in particular political parties. Therefore, this study provides new insights into Roma political elite, which is mostly concentrated in the European parliament and is divided into three different political parties. This short project could only encompass part of the magnitude of Roma’s presence in European politics since non-attached MEP Livia Jaroka did not accept the invitation for the interview.
Roma have attracted considerable scholarly attention over the years. I list the books and articles that thematically cover Roma and European Union. The academic literature on Roma’s political representation has revealed the impossibility of Roma communities having control over how they are represented in the public sphere. Usually, representations of Roma originate and are sustained by non-Romani actors, including international organizations, national governments, and the majority. According to the literature on Roma, the political representation of Roma is significant due to their weak political positioning in local, national, and transnational contexts but also because it highlights the disparity between contested questions of who Roma are and devising policy interventions to address socio-economic and political exclusion (McGarry, 2014).
“Minority Rights in Central and Eastern Europe” by Bernd Rechel (Bernd, 2008) does discuss the situation of Roma minority groups in Central and Eastern Europe, where I mostly put my focus. It also reflects on the results of EU membership on the human rights situation concerning Roma communities. The book very clearly showed the relationship between the historical, political, and social context of Roma minority rights and the institutional frameworks that have been established to protect their rights. It also discusses the crucial role of the European Union in promoting and protecting Roma minority rights in the region.
Furthermore, “Constructing Roma Migrants: European Narratives and Local Governance” by Tina Magazzini (Magazzini & Piemontese, 2019) is a book that examines the ubiquitous political construction of Roma migrants as a “problem” based on stereotypes and prejudices that have been perpetuated over time. These narratives often depict Roma migrants as criminals, beggars, and cultural “others.” As a result, the picture of successful Roma almost disappears. The narratives are used to justify exclusionary policies that restrict access to fundamental rights and services. The authors argue that a more nuanced and context-specific understanding of Roma migration is needed to challenge the negative narratives and create policies that promote political inclusion and respect for Roma’s rights.
In light of this, there is a clear need for more academic literature about the current Roma political elite in the European Union. The lack of academic literature may be understandable since the Roma political elite is an emerging and narrow area of politics that may not be attractive to mainstream academics. This paper opens a discussion about the Roma political elite in the European Parliament and helps to raise awareness about the Roma political representation within academic circles and beyond.
ROMA LEADERS IN EUROPEAN POLITICS
For my oral project, I examined the Roma political elite in the European Parliament, where I could identify 3 Members of the European Parliament who constitute the top-ranked Roma politicians.
Firstly, I decided to examine the political career of Peter Pollák, with whom I have significant political and national links. He is a Roma Slovak MEP in the European Parliament for European People’s Party. He is a member of a committee on Culture and education where he was a rapporteur on OPINION on the report on the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies: Combating negative attitudes towards people with Romani background in Europe (European Parliament, 2020).
Secondly, I followed the path of Romeo Franz, a Sinti MEP from Germany and now serving in the European Parliament for the Greens/European Free Alliance. He is strategically in committees that concern Roma and their struggle in Europe as such. Therefore, he is a chair of the Delegation for Relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and in addition, he is also a vice-chair Committee on Culture and Education. Unfortunately, Romeo Franz needed more time in his busy schedule to accommodate a full-fledged interview before the project deadline. However, Romeo Franz and I had several encounters in the corridors of the European Parliament and political events in Brussels; therefore, I will enrich my project with his insights (European Parliament, 2020).
Finally, I observed the work of Lívia Járóka, a non-attached Roma MEP from Hungary. She is a member of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality and constitutes the gender-specific component of this project. Unfortunately, I have not received any response to my email when I asked for the interview (European Parliament, 2020).
INTERVIEW AND PERSONAL ACCOUNTS DISCUSSION
The interview showed that Peter Pollák’s journey to politics was highly motivated by his aims to contribute to social change. As he said during the interview, he did not see a significant impact of his work on Roma communities in the non-profit sector. He was looking for ways to have a more substantial impact, and politics appeared to be the best solution. However, it was not easy as that. Before entering politics, Peter Pollák actively engaged in Romani matters in Slovakia and advised the government. It was primarily there when actively engaged Roma in Slovakia divided into different directions since one part wanted to advocate for Roma from the non-profit sector, and the other, including Peter Pollák, believed that political participation was the most effective way.
Peter Pollák started his political career in the Slovak national parliament, to which he was elected after two unsuccessful attempts. In 2012, Peter Pollák’s third time running for MP turned out to be successful, and thus he became the first serving Roma MP in Slovakia. Interestingly, Peter Pollák’s journey to European Parliament was closely connected to his ethnicity. According to Peter Pollák, one of the reasons why his political party decided to nominate him for the European election was the fact that there was a likelihood that Slovakia would have neofascists representing Slovak’s far-right party in the European parliament. Therefore, the leader of a relatively liberal party in the Slovakian context decided to nominate Peter Pollák to the European election as a counterbalance to the right-wingers. The nomination was done on the premise that a successful Roma politician would confront the neofascist candidate and offer the voters an option to express their dissatisfaction with the neofascist’s tendencies in Slovakia by voting for the neofascist arch-enemy Roma politician.
However, it is interesting to observe that Peter Pollák is not a member of an ethnically based party. He is a member of a mainstream party that was in the government at the time he was running for the European Parliament. In addition, he is also one of the board members of the political party. Thus, he influenced the party’s agenda, directing the program toward Roma communities. During the political campaign for the European election, Peter Pollák was not addressing inherently Roma issues, but he was focused with his rhetoric on the majority. He addressed the variations in the quality of life across different regions in Slovakia, highlighting the significant disparities among them. Although the topic does not address Roma directly, it may be strongly correlated with them since, in Slovakia, most Roma reside in marginalized areas in the eastern region, which exhibits lower economic development levels than the western parts of the country.
After being elected to the European parliament, he focused primarily on education, culture, and regional development. He was also an opinion rapporteur on a very important file on implementing National Roma Integration Strategies: Combating negative attitudes towards people with Romani background in Europe, where he directly interacted with the rest of the Roma MEPs in the European Parliament (Interview – Peter Pollák sits down with Jakub Haluška, 2023).
Peter Pollák’s story is slightly different from the one of Romeo Franz. He was also significantly active in the non-profit sector. However, when Romeo Franz made a decision to align himself with a political party, he held the assumption and anticipation that the party he chose would already demonstrate a certain level of engagement in areas such as Roma integration, thereby reflecting his expectations. His approach was different from Peter Pollák’s strategy, as Pollák believed more in the influence from within the party he aligned with. As a result, Romeo Franz decided to become a member of the German Greens. Surprisingly, both MEPs are in the ruling parties in their home countries, which may initially seem very odd considering their marginalized backgrounds. In spite of choosing different mainstream ruling political parties, Peter Pollák and Romeo Franz are members of the same European Parliament committee on Culture and Education, and their work in the parliament is interconnected. For instance, as has been already mentioned above, they worked together on a significant report addressing the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies: combating negative attitudes towards people with Romani backgrounds in Europe. Romeo Franz was the rapporteur for this critical report from the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs, whereas Peter Pollák was a rapporteur for the opinion of Culture and Education on Romeo Franz’s report. This cross-party and cross-committee cooperation represents the unity of Roma MEPs on Roma topics in the European Parliament (European Parliament, 2020). Additionally, highlighting their cross-party cooperation on the Romani agenda in the European Parliament, it is worth mentioning that the annual Roma week that takes place in the European Parliament is also under the auspices of Romeo Franz and Peter Pollák (Gwendolyn, 2022).
Lívia Járóka, the last but not least subject of my project, is currently a non-attached member of the European Parliament. Having said that, her domestic political affiliation is with a mainstream right-wing ruling party in Hungary – Fidesz. Therefore, as in the previous observations, Roma MEP is closely connected with the ruling political party. In addition, her political agenda in the European parliament is also closely correlated with her ethnic background, as she was the rapporteur of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee for the opinion on the Report on the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies: Combating negative attitudes towards people with Romani background in Europe. To understand the extent of this report in relation to Lívia Járóka’s parliamentary work, it has been her only report as rapporteur since 2019. Therefore, we can conclude that her parliamentary work highly correlates with her ethnic background. However, she became less visible in the European Parliament after being expelled from the EPP group. For example, in comparison to Peter Pollák and Romeo Franz, she has more local assistants than accredited ones meaning that her assistants are not based in Brussels but primarily in Hungary. This may signal that her focus is shifting somewhat back to Hungarian politics (European Parliament, 2020). In Hungary, we can observe a constant deterioration of human rights, particularly Roma rights. I see a bit of paradox in the political path of Lívia Járóka as she is a member of Fidesz. This political party contributes heavily to worsening Roma’s rights and leads anti-Roma political campaigns across the country (Zeljko, 2020). To further advance my project, I will try to reach Lívia Járóka once more and ask her for an interview. I would dwell on the paradox between Roma advocacy and Fidesz membership in the interview.
In conclusion, the findings of my project emphasize the complex and nuanced interplay between ethnicity and political affiliation of Roma MEPs within the European Parliament, showing that all Roma MEPs are members of the mainstream political party and are marked across various political spectrums. This may result from a growing recognition of the importance of Romani representation within the established political structures. Subsequently, it unraveled that different political affiliations do not prevent the Roma MEPs from actively advocating for Roma’s rights, as we could see the cross-party cooperation on files addressing Roma integration. Notably, the files on Roma integration constitute most of Roma MEPs’ parliamentary work. This indicates the significance of Romani representation in mainstream political parties and their efforts to advocate for Roma rights within the establishment. We can even conclude by saying that there is a broader trend of MEPs embracing their unique identities and utilizing their positions in the European Parliament to promote and fight for the rights of underrepresented groups actively.
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- European Commission (2020) ‘Roma equality, inclusion and participation in the EU’. Available at: https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/combatting-discrimination/roma-eu/roma-equality-inclusion-and-participation-eu_en.
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- European Parliament (2020d) REPORT on the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies: combating negative attitudes towards people with Romani background in Europe. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2020-0147_EN.html.
- Gwendolyn, A. (2022) ‘ERGO Network: Roma Week 2022 at the EP was the biggest meeting yet between EU politicians and Romani representatives’. Available at: https://romea.cz/en/world/ergo-network-roma-week-2022-at-the-ep-was-the-biggest-meeting-yet-between-eu-politicians-and-romani-representatives.
- Interview – Peter Pollak sits down with Jakub Haluška (2023).
- Magazzini, T. and Piemontese, S. (2019) Constructing Roma Migrants European Narratives and Local Governance. IMISCOE Research Series.
- McGarry, A. (2014) ‘Roma as a political identity: Exploring representations of Roma in Europe’, Ethnicities, 14(6), pp. 756–774. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1468796814542182.
- Zeljko, J. (2020) ‘Orbán’s next move: Overpowering the courts’. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/orbans-next-move-overpowering-the-courts-roma-hungary/.