Roma International Day, an annual celebration of Roma culture that took place earlier this month, was partly marred when news organizations neglected to report on the discriminatory language used against Roma at a coinciding debate at the European Parliament.
Maria Bizzotto and Angelo Ciocca, both members of Italian political party Lega Nord, openly discriminated against Roma at the 6th April debate session.
Although freedom of speech is one of the basic principles of democracy and should be respected, MEPs should not be at liberty to use discriminatory language. All citizens and constituencies should be equally respected. When Polish MEP Korwin-Mikke discriminated against women by saying they were less intelligent and weaker than men, EU president Antonion Tajani called out these sexist statements. Yet Tajani and other MEPS chose to remain silent when discriminatory language was used by the Parliament representatives against Roma.
Following an organized set of events in Brussels from 23rd to 30th March called Roma week, the European Parliament had a debate session on 6th April, in honor of International Roma Day. Apart from the busy agenda, Roma squeezed in early for a briefing about the situation in Europe. The plenary was moderated by one of the vice-presidents of the European Parliament, Evelyne Gebhardt. The debate was attended by all of the Parliament’s political groups.
The session started with an assessment of the situation of Roma, explaining the continuation of the EU Roma Framework 2020 and then highlighting the most pressing issues currently facing Roma including employment, education, housing and antigypsyism. Representatives unanimously showed support for the framework and the discussed issues but failed to bring up short terms goals or a specific course of action in implementing the framework.
Only Soraya Post, a member of the S&D of Romani origin, had concrete recommendations urging specific Commissioners from different DGs to establish a team for non-discriminatory funds and programs to rectify the failure of Roma integration in Europe. She also added that consulting with Roma representatives and NGOs was crucial for implementation for the plan, as was monitoring and evaluation of the projects. Post also stressed the importance of recognizing 2nd August at the national level to commemorate Roma Holocaust victims.
After a series of positive accounts, the first insult was from EFDD representative Tim Aker of UKIP. In two minutes Akar blatantly attacked the EU for supporting the migration of Roma to the UK which he claimed brought nothing but poverty to the country. Counter arguments underlined that Roma are a contributing part of European societies and that the EP should remain a platform to discuss their issues. Aker blamed the translation of his arguments, claiming that he represents concerned British citizens and expressed his gratitude for Brexit.
During the debate, Maria Bizzotto from the ENF, caught the most significant spotlight of the debate. Firstly she paid respects to the victims of WWII but then proceeded to accuse the EU of wasting millions of euros to integrate Roma. She vociferously claimed that Roma do not want to integrate and the money should be spent on as she puts it “our citizens, our unemployed people, our poor families”. Bizzotto then used her home country of Italy as an example to generalize and vilify Roma as the root of some of the country’s problems. In the end, denying any racism on her part, she denounced the importance of the day.
These statements rightfully provoked an avalanche of reactions from other representatives. Many MEPs criticized the country and reiterated the party’s commitment and role in supporting Roma integration. Avoiding a direct response to the questions, Bizzotto claimed Italian funds programs for Roma inclusion that do not work. She added that there are both legal and illegal Roma children who are undernourished and badly dressed, while their parents allegedly drive expensive cars that she claims are bought with EU funds. She also added that Roma children do not want to pursue an education and attacked their parents for forcing their children to beg and steal as reported by local Italian newspapers.
In the end, Angelo Ciocca from the same political party, toed the line. He pointed out that the important issues are being left unheard and that representatives are wasting time debating about fake victims. He also emphasized that Italy has a burglary case every two minutes where Roma are questioned about how they earn their money and can afford expensive cars. Duly noted by the moderator, there was no room for additional counter arguments to Ciocca’s speech. However, the debate continued with representatives showing support for inclusion initiatives for Roma.
In times of increased nationalist public sentiment, and far-right parties blooming at the national level, it is increasingly important that the European Parliament sustain its credibility as a democratic institution by respecting the core values and principles of the Union, and that means respecting its minorities.
Sanctioning MEPs is a step in the right direction. Korwin-Mikke was sanctioned and banned from parliamentary bodies for a year for his sexist and discriminatory remarks made against women and the move was saluted by MEPs, citizens and institutions — the EU and its institutions were finally acting instead of just kindly recommending. Maria Bizzotto and Angelo Ciocca have also been suspended for their discriminatory remarks towards Roma. However, it’s doubtful that this will in large change the discriminatory Roma narrative. A wider and more unified effort on the EU’s part will be required to remedy that.
Cover photo credit: Matthias Ripp/flickr/some rights reserved.