by Jonathan Lee

Europe stands at a crucial juncture; as the pandemic enters its third year without an obvious end in sight, the far-right draws ever closer to the centres of power across the continent, and the very existence of the European Union as we know it faces renewed threats from both East and West of the bloc. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to threaten new emergency measures, lockdowns, and school closures in countries across Europe. The impact of these measures would be keenly felt by a vulnerable Romani population, already beleaguered by police violence, illegal quarantines, and distance learning which denies their children an education. The threat from the far-right, however – already steadily growing over the last decade within European politics – will have several opportunities to move even closer to the hallways of power this year, with potentially dire consequences for the continent’s largest and most marginalised ethnic minority group. In the midst of what could prove to be a tumultuous year for European politics, Europe’s 12 million strong population of Romani people stand to lose out more than most if the political pendulum swings the wrong way.

A victory for Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary

An imminent European Court of Justice decision is expected to green-light a funding conditionality mechanism for failures to uphold the rule of law in EU member states. This would allow the EU to withdraw funding to Hungary and Poland for egregious failures to uphold the rule and breaching EU values. The implications are considerable for Viktor Orbán, who in April will face his first credible election threat in many years during Hungary’s parliamentary elections. Orbán’s weaponization of anti-Roma sentiment for political gain is longstanding. In 2020, in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic, he used his position to persecute Romani families who won a legal case against a school in Gyöngyöspata for segregating their children. He called for “justice for the Gyöngyöspata people”, stating in a radio interview: “I am not from Gyöngyöspáta, but if I were to live there, I would be asking how it is that, for some reason, members of an ethnically determined group living in a community with me, in a village, can receive significant sums of money without doing any work, while I toil every day?”

a far-right president in one of the EU’s three major powers (France, Germany, Italy) would fundamentally disrupt the Union as we know it.

Should his Fidesz party defeat the opposition coalition in April, the Roma in Gyöngyöspáta as well as in the rest  of the country will no doubt be in his sights once again. Another ‘national consultation’ is likely on the horizon to provide the pretext for his regime to overturn the decision of Hungary’s Supreme Court, which ruled that compensation must be paid to the families of the children whose education was robbed from them in segregated schooling. With rising tensions being stoked by the far-right, and paramilitary groups once again holding anti-Roma demonstrations on the streets, government actions normalising antigypsyism send the wrong message to a society already deeply prejudiced against Roma. In 2008 and 2009, the demonisation of Roma in the national consciousness led to deadly consequences when 6 Roma were murdered and over 50 wounded with bombs and automatic weapons in a spate of far-right terrorist attacks.

The EU hangs in the balance with French presidential elections 

In France, President Macron will be contending the elections in April against an array of far-right, populist, and Eurosceptic opposition candidates. Foremost among them is Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National who took the most votes in the 2019 European Elections against a coalition including Macron’s En Marche! party.

Whilst their rebrand from National Front (Front National) to National Rally (Rassemblement National) has meant some dialling back on their anti-EU stance in recent years, the party is still at its core a far-right endeavour. Its 2019 European electoral success demonstrates it is no longer simply the party of provincial racism, but a serious political threat. Its supporters span social classes, north and south, rural and urban. That said, the core of its base still lies in l’arriere-pays, in the market towns and villages of its rural heartlands traditionally in the South-east of the country. It is here that the party has cemented its de facto policies of antigypsyism through the words and actions of its representatives over the years.

voting projections in Europe via Politico’s Poll of Polls

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and former leader of the party, described Roma in Nice as a “foul-smelling presence” on 5th July 2013. In 2014 a Front National candidate running in Paris’ municipal elections caused outrage by suggesting that the Minister of the Interior “concentrate” Roma in “camps”. In 2017 Franck  Sinisi,  a  local Front National  official  in  the  Fontaine  municipality,  was brought before a disciplinary  commission for a statement in which he suggested that the authorities “remove the gold teeth of Roma” so they  could  provide  “self-funding”  for  their  accommodation  in  Fontaine.

Aside from the direct threat Rassemblement National poses to Roma and other minorities in France, a far-right president in one of the EU’s three major powers (France, Germany, Italy) would fundamentally disrupt the Union as we know it. The competency of the European Union to effectively challenge racist governments in Member States, something which is already questionable, would be further curtailed. For the moment Macron is leading in the polls, principally thought to be due to the right-wing vote being split across three parties.

Italy’s far-right government-in-waiting

In Italy, the fractious coalition government of six warring political parties led by Mario Draghi is nearing its one year anniversary of taking power. The unlikely national unity government was formed out of necessity following the collapse of the previous two governments led by Giuseppe Conte. Behind this unstable coalition, the threat of Italy’s far-right still lurks in the polls. 

One-time Interior Minister and full-time fascist Matteo Salvini still commands 19% of the electorate in recent polls through his Lega party. Salvini built much of his political platform on the demonisation of Roma, as well as migrants from North Africa. In 2018 he unsuccessfully attempted to hold an ethnically targeted census of Roma in Italy, and was recorded on video calling for a “mass cleansing, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, piazza by piazza” of Roma living in unregulated, makeshift housing. The anti-Roma rhetoric from Salvini and other far-right politicians previously coincided with mob violence by neo-Nazi street gangs in 2019 against Roma in Italy.

The far-right Fratelli d’Italia party also polls at 19%, and have promised to campaign together with Lega in the next election. The potential addition of somehow never disgraced ex-Prime Minister Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, would further strengthen their coalition into an electoral front-runner.

A far-right presidency in a founding member state would diminish the EU’s already questionable ability to take action against racist member state governments

As Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi was the architect of the so-called ‘nomad emergency’; a national state of emergency which began in 2008 and saw the state target Romani people through police harassment, forced evictions, ethnic census, illegal collection of biometric data (including from children), and segregated Roma-only camps. Berlusconi’s party currently polls at 8% of the vote which, if talks of building a right-wing coalition are successful, could mean close to 50% of the vote going to a far-right led coalition in the next election. While parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2023, the unstable unity coalition is by no means certain to last the whole year. Its collapse would trigger an early election, potentially paving the way for the far-right, and notably the return of Matteo Salvini to the Italian government.

Allowing fascism to flourish anywhere taints Europe everywhere

The ramifications of far-right victories in these three countries would likely extend far beyond their borders. A rejection of the rule of law, liberal democracy, and so-called ‘European values’ in Hungary would shake Europe’s self-image to the core and demonstrate the inability of Brussels to curb its rogue member states. It would also pave the way for renewed scapegoating of Hungary’s Roma population by a regime which has run out of migrants and foreign NGOs to attack. In Italy the ominous spectre of a far-right majority government, with Matteo Salvini back in a position of power, would mean an existential danger for the country’s Roma from state and non-state actors that could eclipse even the 2008 ‘nomad emergency’. Meanwhile in France, an unprecedented, democratically elected far-right president would greatly weaken the chances for further integration between member states as envisaged by Macron. A far-right presidency in a founding member state would diminish the EU’s already questionable ability to take action against racist member state governments, as well as embolden far-right parties and organisations right across the continent. In the midst of a pandemic which has already cost Roma dearly, the additional danger posed by fascist groups this year leaves Romani people in a more perilous situation throughout Europe than has been seen for many years.

Featured image CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2021 – Source: EP

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