Monday was International Roma Day. Throughout Europe, Roma people and their allies gathered to sing, dance, and celebrate Romani culture. But the day is also meant to draw attention to the poor living conditions and social exclusion facing many of Europe’s largest minority. Roma people die younger, complete far fewer years of school, have little political voice, face pervasive discrimination, and suffer higher rates of violence and crime than their majority population counterparts. As a growing proportion of the school-age population, pressures are increasing on European governments to educate and integrate their Roma constituents for future participation in the labor force and in wider society. 

The year 2005 marked what many had hoped would be the beginning of improvements for Roma when eight European governments launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion– an initiative to advance the Roma’s “socio-economic status and social inclusion.” Later expanded to twelve countries, each participating state submitted a Decade Action Plan in which they set goals and indicators for priority areas including education, employment, health, and housing.  

However, as the Decade draws to a close, the initiative’s impact has been ambiguous at best. Non-governmental organization leaders, former officials, and other activists expressed disappointment over a lack of implementation at the national level saying that little had happened after producing the plans. Pledges to build houses, train workers, and provide clinics are consistently underfunded. Relations with state authorities themselves remain difficult. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe details how interactions between Roma and the police are fraught with ethnic profiling, disproportionate use of force by police, and failure to respond effectively to victims of racist violence. Assessing progress is nearly impossible according to a report by the Open Society Foundations, a main donor of the Roma Decade, considering the dearth of data. Two thirds of the participating countries have no recorded statistics for the primary school completion rates of Roma children. 

Other Roma inclusion programs have demonstrated a similar deficiency of leadership. When analyzing Roma integration in the European Union, a May 2012 report by Eurochild, a network of organizations promoting child welfare funded by the European Commission, asserted that overall many member states “appear not to have taken the process seriously.”  The Commission itself marked International Roma Day 2013 by calling for “decisive action to further Roma integration.” Yet the Commission and many other institutions and advocates have made this appeal before, seemingly to deaf ears and often without heeding their own advice. Valeriu Nicolae, a longtime human rights activist and Romanian Roma, argued that EU funding for Roma social inclusion was a failure. He condemned the Commission for hosting conferences of empty rhetoric rather than actionable commitment, attended by “experts” on Roma issues who have spent little or no time in Roma communities. Only two of the twenty-nine speakers at a recent Commission conference were Roma. Citing inefficiency and a lack of funding, Roma-rights representatives in Sofia took advantage of the extra attention on Roma Day by leaving a meeting of the Bulgarian National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, demanding that it be reformed or replaced

The attitude emanating from Brussels and many national capitals towards Roma issues is one of complacency.  Meetings and plans abound but ultimately amount to very little change on the ground. Domestic agencies bemoan the lack of support from the European level while the European Union and others blame member countries for not putting forth more effort. The dialogue needs to change instead to one of active partnership and binding responsibility between the European institutions, individual countries, and the Roma community itself. 

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel described the treatment of Roma as a litmus test for civil society, a necessary component of vibrant democracy. In a tumultuous time when some are reevaluating the relevance of international bodies, the European institutions need to take leadership on the common bonds of peace and liberal democratic values that brought them together in the first place.  As another annual Roma Day passes, European governments need to turn their attention to seriously resolving the problems the Roma face. Otherwise next year, once again, there will be little to celebrate. 

Meleah Paull is an intern at the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council