Expulsions from Italy in 2006-07 and from France in 2010 turned the Roma into headline news and brought this marginalised community onto the European policy agenda. This higher profile has also been reflected within European studies. Academics dealing with the Roma are pooling their expertise, while those in other areas are turning to the Roma for case studies in subjects such as migration, social inclusion and citizenship.
Much of the impetus to build an EU strategy on the Roma came mainly from the European Parliament, and it was a Parliamentary research grant that brought Claire Gordon of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) to the issue in 2009. Her specialisation is the post-communist area, in particular the role of the EU in bringing about change in countries applying for membership. “Up until about two years ago I'd done no work on the Roma, except for noting that they were one of the minorities that the European Commission regularly highlighted as an area that needed attention,” she says.
The Parliamentary project involved looking at the situation of Roma citizens in six ‘old' and six ‘new' EU states, with a particular focus on employment, education, health and housing. As well as Gordon, the project involved Will Bartlett, a colleague at LSE's European Institute, and Roberta Benini of the Nomisma Institute of Economic Research in Bologna.
It proved to be a fertile field of inquiry. “The Roma represent a really interesting area of study for comparative political science and comparative political economy, not necessarily coming at it because the Roma is your focal point of interest but as a way to get into a lot of other issues,” Gordon says.
For example, she and Bartlett have used the Roma issue as a means of examining the Parliament's powers in the wake of the Lisbon treaty. “We looked at attempts by the Parliament to push through a much more active strategy on Roma inclusion, the possibilities for Europeanisation and the intra-institutional relations between the Council [of Ministers], the [European] Commission and the Parliament.”
“We concluded that the Commission and the Council retained the upper hand,” she says.
Shaping European identity
Owen Parker, a research fellow in the University of Warwick's department of politics and international studies, also came to the Roma through studying the EU, in particular how European governance seeks to shape European identity and ideas of citizenship. The French expulsions were his way in. “What was particularly interesting to me was this conflict between France and the EU, the Commission and Commissioner [Viviane] Reding's outspoken statements on the issue and the invocation of EU citizenship in relation to the Roma,” he says.
Parker recently received a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, a UK-based research charity, for a two-year project examining the plight of the Roma as a case study in European citizenship, security and identity. “The Roma are a group who have constantly sat at the margins in one way or another,” he says. “I'm interested in considering why, how and where this group is consistently marginalised in an apparently cosmopolitan European political space.” Although still in its early stages, Parker hopes this project will include fieldwork in France and Spain, a country with a more positive record on Roma issues.
Meanwhile, Timofey Agarin and Matthew Kott, two academics with a longer engagement with Roma issues, have set up a collaborative research network under the aegis of the University Association for Contemporary European Studies. The idea is to make connections, particularly with researchers new to the area, to break down disciplinary barriers and to build proposals for research projects.
“The aim is to formulate research that has a European agenda,” says Kott, who co-ordinates Romani studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. “We are talking about a transnational minority, a quintessentially European minority. They didn't become Romanies until they arrived in Europe, so it should be an issue of interest for Europeans on a broader scale.”
Kott, who specialises in 20th-century Baltic history, initially came to the Roma through studying their persecution during the Second World War. He can see why people with a focus on EU politics are now interested in the issue. “If you look at the events of last summer in France, these questions are really testing the boundaries of European integration,” he says.
The need for outsiders
However, as a historian he sees a continuity with earlier exclusions and the way attempts to exclude Roma groups have been formulated over the centuries. “The need for national states to create outsiders is being transferred to the need of the European Union to unify itself by creating the ‘other'.”
Agarin, who is based at the University of Aberdeen, is a social and political scientist with an interest in social exclusion and political decision-making. “Over the past couple of years, I've come to look at the Roma because they are marginalised in the political process as well as in the social fabric of society,” he says. “They are always excluded from participating in what European citizens perceive to be their inalienable right to take part in social and political life.”
As well as its research goals, Agarin thinks that the network could have a role building bridges between policy-makers and Roma activists. “There is huge potential for talking to both sides,” he says, “whereas before the expulsions from Italy and France there was no sense of urgency about the matter.”