On March 26th George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations, and Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe published a co-authored article entitled ‘Why we are setting up a European Roma Institute’ (Soros and Jagland, 2015).
Although less than 700 words in length, this European Voice article contains the foundations and promise of a symbolic and actual paradigm shift for up to 12 million Romani lives and livelihoods. The authors point out that although at the heart of Europe, the diffuse Romani communities spread across the territory have been denied an institution that can strategically and sensitively convey and represent heterogeneous issues of Romani culture, identity and politics.
The time has now come, argue Soros and Jagland, to change this reality: social exclusion and economic deprivation must transform into meaningful opportunity and material outcomes across areas of art, politics, music, life. The European Roma Institute, they suggest, is the vehicle to deliver this. At heart, this is the radical and fundamental paradigm shift that has been a long time coming in Romani Studies. The promise must now become reality.
How would the Institute do this in practice? The remit would be broad yet focussed – an educational role will be one of the primary means to enable a ‘chipping away’ at centuries-old anti-Romani stereotypes and prejudice that continue to plight communities whether in Slovenia, Scotland or Slovakia. A concern for Romani self-esteem and consciousness/confidence building is also raised as pivotal to the Institute’s work and it is self-evident that in challenging and questioning gadjo (non-Roma) power this is important ‘social capital’ for Romani individuals and families to possess.
Who has the power and platform to narrate or even translate Romani stories and experience is important they argue – and for too long this has rested only in the hands of (often well-meaning) non-Romani scholars, activists and politicians. The creation of the Institute will act as a beacon, and learning platform, for Romani children of future generations to look towards with hope and aspirations, as well as ‘belonging and pride’. It is an Institute by Roma for Roma, in all shades, colours and schemes.
It is true that vaguely similar initiatives, at a nation-state level, have been attempted before but too often in a way that has been tokenistic and lacking any kind of joined-up thinking and genuine political will. The Institute will reach out across the boundaries of European society to try and join together, in a strategic, non-partisan and rational way, some of the existing dots. It cannot shy away from the existing social, economic and political issues that urgently need to be faced. This is an example of where transnational action and determination must trump national stagnation and ineptitude.
Although Roma-led, the Institute is an amalgamation of ideas and inputs from the Open Society and the Council of Europe, as well as a new body - the Alliance for the European Roma Institute. Funding is secure for a five year start-up period and will help propel Romani communities into the European spotlight in a very different way to the usual negative associations that are illuminated. Aside from its creative and arts focus, it will also advise the Council of Europe on matters of political and economic substance whereby Romani educators, activists and representatives will for once take control of the stage, microphones and cameras.
At a local level, for the various Romani communities living and working in Scotland, what would this Institute mean? There are at least four immediate and practical steps that could be taken, in my view:
To sponsor a local ERI ‘hub’ or centre, mostly likely in Glasgow, that local Romani populations can manage and use to undertake the kinds of creative arts and confidence-building activities envisaged by Soros and Jagland. Such work could build on the initiatives already undertaken by an existing Roma-led NGO based in Govanhill, Romano Lav (Roma Voice).
To fund and nurture the advancement of Romani students at local Universities and colleges, especially in fields of law, economics, humanities, engineering and sciences.
To develop opportunities for genuine Roma and non-Roma intercultural cooperation, working together on shared-projects within local communities with an aim to enhance quality of life for all residents (e.g. Such as the successful ‘Clean Green Team’ project which aimed to deal with issues of environment/recycling).
To work in partnership with local public, private and voluntary sector agencies to challenge some of the systematic and prevalent anti-Roma stereotypes and prejudices that routinely feature in print and broadcast media.
Of course, time will tell what the Institute can deliver on and, as ever, the devil will be in the detail. Cynics and sceptics will doubtless have their say and pour cold water on an initiative that has not even properly taken form yet. Indeed, it is rather disappointing that the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF) has declined to offer its backing and support at this point in time, citing the focus on arts and culture as problematic - in a policy sense - as well as the European rather than nation-state focus of the Institute’s proposed work (ERTF, 2015).
However, as an opening salvo, the statement by Soros and Jagland is encouraging, optimistic and we might say even ‘visionary’. These are all elements that have been absent far too long in the lives of the majority of Europe’s Romani populations. In short, it is time for gadjo Empires to fall and new Romani paradigms to be built.
European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF) (2015) ‘The Position of the European Roma and Travellers Forum on the European Roma Institute (ERI) to counter prejudices against Roma, Sinti and Kale by promoting research about their culture and history’. Press Release. 30-03-15. http://www.ertf.org/images/Letters/ERTF_Position_on_ERI.pdf (accessed 31-03-15)
Soros, G. and Jagland, T. (2015) ‘Why we are setting up a European Roma Institute’, European Voice, 26-03-15. http://www.europeanvoice.com/other-voices/why-we-are-setting-up-a-european-roma-institute/ (accessed 31-03-15)
(Professor Clark works at University of the West of Scotland as a Professor of Sociology & Social Policy, based in the School of Social Sciences on the Paisley Campus. He is also a CRER Board Member)