Op-Ed: Europe Remains Silent Over the Appointment of a Racist to Lead on Roma Inclusion in Bulgaria

Bernard Rorke on the EU’s silence on the appointment of a “pronounced supporter of fascist and neo-Nazi ideology” to lead Bulgaria’s National Council on Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues.


For four months there has been neither comment nor condemnation from the EU over the appointment in Bulgaria of Patriotic Front henchman, Valeri Simeonov, to lead the National Council on Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues. In an open letter on May 29, nearly 400 Bulgarian human rights activists and intellectuals denounced the appointment of a “pronounced supporter of fascist and neo-Nazi ideology.”

The European Commission told the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), that while it condemns all forms of racism in the EU, the Commission has no direct competence over alleged cases of hate speech or hate crime in Member States.

So while the Commission condemns racism and xenophobia across Europe, right now it has no comment to make about racism in Bulgaria and nothing to say about the appointment of an open fascist “to deal with” minorities. To be clear, there is nothing “alleged” about Simeonov’s hate speech; it is a matter of parliamentary record.

Simeonov, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, infamously declared in parliament that the Roma, “are brazen, feral, human-like creatures that demand pay without work, and collect sickness benefits without being sick. They receive child benefits for children that play with pigs on the street, and for women that have the instincts of stray dogs.”

Earlier Simeonov spoke about creating “modern concentration camps,” and his party has called for the demolition of “Gypsy ghettos” and the isolation of Roma in closed “reservations” that could generate income as tourist attractions.

The Commission assured the ERRC that it is in close contact with Bulgarian authorities to ensure that criminal law meets minimum standards to support the fight against racism and xenophobia, and that it has encouraged the Bulgarian government “to step up efforts to promote the full equality of Roma in practice”.

The appointment of an avowed racist and fascist politician to head Bulgaria’s National Council on Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues stands as a measure of just how ineffectual the European Commission’s interventions have been to date. In terms of racist provocation, Simeonov’s statements far exceed anything that has previously been said by any elected representative of a Member State government, still less a Deputy Prime Minister.

Simeonov’s appointment can only be interpreted as a deeply cynical and calculated insult to the European Commission and the EU Framework for National Roma Inclusion Strategies. It also stands as a gesture of hostility and contempt towards Bulgaria’s Roma population, and was described by the opposition party Yes Bulgaria as “another frank demonstration that the government is actually abandoning the European model of development of the country.” They warned the ruling party GERB that its “toxic national-populism” can only divide society and heighten the “risk of stirring up ethnic enmity”.

Things have gone way past the risk stage when it comes to stirring up hate mobs in Bulgaria, as the recent submissions by the ERRC and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee to UNCERD made clear. Both reports detail recent violent events, which include mass attempts by mobs to storm Roma neighbourhoods, an increase in hate speech, and failures by the authorities to deal with racially-motivated hate crimes properly.

Recent statements by MEP Angel Dzambazki included reference to Roma as ‘primates’, and stated that Bulgarian society has “conveniently taught them not to work and leaves them unpunished for paedophilia, prostitution, drugs and whatever other evil doings you can imagine.” In comments referring to recent violent incidents he stated: “The Gypsies are free to kill Bulgarians in domestic disputes. This is part of their lifestyle. That excuses them. This is part of their gypsy uniqueness.”

As for European Union recommendations for Bulgaria to step up efforts on integration, Dzambazki retorted: “Tell me something about integration. About tolerance. About ‘liberalism’. About ‘humanism’ … And I will tell you how to use a rope.”

No stranger to controversy, Dzambazki willfully courts attention with frequent outbursts of hate speech. As reported by Balkan Insight, his latest statements prompted an online petition calling on the European Parliament to penalize him for spreading “aggressive anti-Roma propaganda” in the parliament, in the media and on social networks.”

Dzambazki is no marginal political figure. He is a leading member of the Bulgarian nationalist VMRO party, and as a member of the European Parliament belongs to the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR). VMRO is a part of the Patriotic Front, and a coalition partner in the current GERB-led government. These “Patriotic” coalition partners are beyond the pale when it comes to hate speech, racism, incitement to violence and links with the neo-Nazi extremists. Dzhambazki embodies all the poison and prejudices stirring on the dark side of our democracies.

Among the questions that need to be asked in Brussels is how such radically racist politicians came to be appointed to serve in the Bulgarian government? Is the EU so consumed with its deliberations about how best to confront democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary that it has failed to register Bojko Borisov’s fascist flirtations in Bulgaria? Maybe it’s time for the EU to sit up and pay attention, because a crisis of sorts may be looming, for this unsavoury governing coalition is set to assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June 2018.

The European Commission is gearing itself up for its half-time stock-take of the EU Framework of National Roma Integration Strategies. In its 2016 assessment of progress, the Commission commended Bulgaria for mobilizing ESI funding that “should allow them to advance with the implementation of soft measures” and called for better coordination, monitoring and reporting mechanisms.

You just don’t get any sense from this faint praise and muted criticism, that this is a country whose government includes a coterie of thugs who have abandoned any pretense of civil conduct or commitment to equity when it comes to its minority populations.

The Commission recently stated that the failure of national authorities to take effective action against hate speech and hate crime amounts to complicity, and that reluctance to act makes intolerance more acceptable in our societies. This observation also holds true for European institutions.

When it comes to Bulgaria, the Commission will have to deliver something more substantive than anodyne observations that “better coordination is needed among key stakeholders.” The situation of Roma in Bulgaria is worsening; inter-ethnic tension has spilled over into violence, which is being stoked and exploited for political gain. The coarseness of public debate with its frequent resort to racist hate speech against Roma, migrants and Muslims; and the appointment to high office of thugs who openly espouse fascist views should alert the EU that there is yet another rogue member state to be reckoned with.

Disclaimer: The views in this op-ed are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Balkanist.

Cover photo: Monument to the victory over fascism in Shumen, Bulgaria. Credit: Sludge G/flickr/some rights reserved.

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Bernard Rorke

Bernard Rorke works as an advocacy officer for the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest. He has worked on Roma issues across Europe for almost twenty years, edits the ERRC Blog and is a correspondent for Hope not Hate.