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The Plight of the Roma Minority: Signs of Hope Amidst This Challenge to Rainbow Europe

Steven Hill: Ironically, the overblown stridency over new Muslim immigrants only has served to obscure the failure of Europe to integrate its longstanding ethnic minorities, most of whom are the children or grandchildren of immigrants and have resided there for years.

Today I interviewed Professor Rudolf Sarkozi, a leader of the Roma ethnic minority and chairman of the Austrian Romani Cultural Society in Vienna, Austria, as well as his son Andreas Sarkozi, who is the organization’s secretary. It was a fascinating interview in which Professor Sarkozi, a recognized and sought-out European leader of the Roma, gave his frank opinions on the persecution of the Roma, the recent French president Sarkozy’s (yes, ironically nearly the same name! More on that below) policy of Roma expulsion from France, the general treatment of ethnic minorities in Europe and Austria, relations with other minorities such as the Turkish Muslim minority in Vienna, and more.


The plight of the Roma is important, because in certain ways they play the role of the proverbial canary in the mine shaft. In recent decades, predominantly white and Christian Europe has seen an influx of immigrants and ‘auslanders’ (German for ‘outsiders’) and, like the United States before it, has struggled with the integration of minorities, whether those minorities are from North Africa, Turkey or eastern Europe. I have written extensively about the challenges of immigration and integration in my book "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" ( There is little doubt that Europe’s future is that of a ‘rainbow’ continent, with a mixing and melting that is occurring before everyone’s eyes -- but not always smoothly or peacefully.

The Europessimists have predicted that this ‘rainbow-ization’ of Europe will lead to its downfall, with the most extreme saying the continent is destined to become “Eurabia,” a colony of Islam. Alarmist anti-immigrant literature has become a genre unto itself, with titles such as these gracing bookstores: While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within; The West’s Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations?; Eurabia, the Euro-Arab Axis; Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’ s Crisis is America’s, Too; World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism. And of course the granddaddy of them all is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, which was a bestseller even as it drew the lines too starkly and distorted the discourse on an important subject.

While some of these works have levied some thoughtful analysis, increasingly the genre has resulted in a kind of shrill, pop-chart alarmism which descends into hype and even silly nonsense. There are more immigrants in France from Portugal, for example, than there are from North Africa or Turkey, and there are no credible demographic projections showing that the number of Muslims or ethnic minorities in Europe will ever reach the level of minorities already in the United States (which currently is one-third minority). But facts are not important to the bashers and doomsayers of Europe.

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Ironically, the overblown stridency over new Muslim immigrants only has served to obscure the failure of Europe to integrate its longstanding ethnic minorities, most of whom are the children or grandchildren of immigrants and have resided there for years. The Roma are some of these longstanding ethnic minorities, and they are not Muslims. Also known as Gypsies, this ethnic minority is one of the most discriminated in all of Europe. Their roots in Europe go back centuries, and they have been present in small numbers in most European countries for just as long. But today it is estimated that the Roma population is between two and five million, most of them living in Slavic-speaking countries such as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. Romania in particular, ruled by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu until the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989, has been strongly criticized by human rights advocates as well as by the European Union for discrimination against the Roma. Romania has not even spent the millions of euros given to it by the E.U. to foster Roma integration, choosing instead to maintain difficult conditions so that the Roma will leave and migrate across Europe.

And migrate they have, fanning out across much of the European continent with an industriousness that is admirable as much as it is alarming for the places where they arrive in significant numbers, often living in gypsy camps on the outskirts of towns. Locals as well as the authorities complain that a certain criminal element of petty thieves accompany the Roma influx, as a certain number live on the streets by stealing and deploying clever ruses designed to swindle people. When I was in Paris, I stood in the plaza outside the Musee D’Orsay and watched a small pack of Roma youth work the passersby with various premeditated schemes intended to separate people from their money.


All of these issues came to a head in August and September when French President Sarkozy ordered the expulsion of many of the Roma, providing them free travel and a small amount of money ($382) to send them back to Romania and Bulgaria. This caused the European Commission to condemn Sarkozy’s policy as a violation of the EU charter against targeting an ethnic minority and a violation of the Roma’s human rights (as of early October, approximately 1,700 Roma had been expelled by this order, though thousands more had earlier been deported). In dramatic fashion, the plight of the Roma suddenly became front page news as well as an EU-wide challenge. And Professor Rudolph Sarkozi was in the thick of it as a spokesman for the Roma, sparring with his French presidential namesake.

When I meet with him on a sunny October morning in his office, Professor Sarkozi is a stout man who looks to be about sixty five years of age, with a tousled, graying mop top of black hair and a thick moustache. He says that he comes from a simple background (that’s an understatement: he was born in a concentration camp in Austria, and after the liberation of the camp he returned with his mother to her home in Austria). He has worked his way up over the years to a point of now being a recognized spokesperson for the Roma minority. He was pleasant though business-like in the interview, as was his son Andreas (the interview was conducted in German and translated into English by an interpreter).

SH: There is a perception that one of the difficulties that prevents Roma integration is that they are perennially migrants, never settling down in one place long enough to establish roots; that it’s practically a genetic disposition to wander “like gypsies” from place to place, living in camps, a sort of romantic life that, in this modern age where people settle down to work at jobs, is an anachronism that doesn’t fit. Can you help us to understand how much of this aspect is part of the Roma challenge?

Sarkozi: We Roma are not a nomadic people. Rather, we are a persecuted people looking for a place where we can live and prosper. Were the first American colonists nomadic when they moved to America to escape persecution? Besides, in Europe there used to be a custom where trades people would move from place to place in search of work, and Roma were like that. Perhaps some adjustment is still occurring in that regard among some of the Roma.

SH: What do you think about Romania’s policy toward its Roma population?

Sarkozi: The Romanian government is pushing the Roma people out of the country. Instead of spending the EU money it is expelling people into the rest of the EU. It would be more effective if the EU gave this money directly to Roma groups and not to the Romanian government, which has no Roma representatives. There are many successful Roma businesses and organizations in Romania that could use this money, especially to hire Roma. It would be better to hire Roma even to do menial jobs, like sweeping, than just give them unemployment, since that would help them to develop skills and mentalities for working.

SH: What would be the best EU policy for the Roma?

Sarkozi: The EU should require that those nations and organizations receiving EU money for the Roma have Roma themselves as co-determinants in how that support is used, how the money is spent. They also should do more to draw the Roma in to the political process. Here in Austria (which he says has one of the best policies in Europe for Roma integration), two ministers in the Austrian government regularly seek out the views of Roma leaders, including myself. EU member states should all have a Roma representative in the European Parliament. We are fighting for a Commissioner at the EU level who will oversee minority issues. The EU is getting better in this regard, but the problems we are now experiencing was completely predictable and the EU was unprepared. When the eastern countries were added to the EU, and when free migration of people was allowed (under the Schengen agreement), it was clear that a persecuted people like the Roma would migrate in search of a better life. The EU didn’t prepare for this and now is playing catch up.

SH: In the recent municipal elections in Vienna (which had occurred the previous Sunday, October 10), the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPO) won many more seats than previously, nearly doubling its total from the last election to 27%. Did the Roma feel a threat from their campaign and now their electoral success?

Sarkozi: The FPO campaigned more against Muslims than against foreigners. And specifically Turkish Muslims, since other Muslims from Indonesia and other places have not had as hard a time integrating. Crises like the current economic downturn cause more people to vote for the Freedom Party. But the Roma were not caught up in this anti-Muslim wave. I have met with the FPO leaders, they are not anti-Roma. The integration of Roma has been more successful than of Turkish Muslims.

SH: Why has the Roma integration been more successful?

Sarkozi: The Turkish Muslim community is much larger than the Roma, and that makes integration more difficult. The Roma have been in Austria since the 17th century but Turkish Muslims only since World War II, so our roots are much longer and deeper. Austria also was conquered at one point by Turkish Muslims, and while that was a long time ago, memories are long. Sometimes some of their leaders say things that alarm people. For example, one Muslim leader said he could anticipate a minaret in every Austrian regional capital and that set off alarms throughout the country. The Turkish children, especially those recently arrived from Turkey, tend to have a low level of education and cannot speak German, so it puts a burden on the education system. And some of the imams say they follow sharia law and don’t always respect Austrian law. If I enter someone else’s country I expect to have to follow their laws. In addition, the Roma have done a lot to foster our own integration. I initiated my own fund for education of Roma youth, as well as parents.

SH: Which countries are best for the Roma, which ones treat them the best?

Sarkozi: Germany and Austria are the best (my note: Currently, there are around 30,000 Roma, largely settled, in a country of 8.5 million Austrians). Our leaders are consulted by their leaders, and many Roma living in these two countries have become successful. Also I don’t hear anything negative about the Scandinavian countries. Integration works best when ethnic minorities are active in the process, and in government. Austria has an advisory board for ethnic minorities which helps with integration. On October18 Austria will have a Day for Ethnic Minorities.

SH: Do the Turks participate in these activities, like a Day for Ethnic Minorities?

Sarkozi: Austria has six officially recognized ethnic minorities, and the Turks are not yet one of them (the others are Slovaks, Croats, Slovenes, Czechs and Hungarians). This is for historical reasons, “minority groups” must have been here for four generations and be Austrian citizens, and many of the Turks have not become citizens. But right now the political will doesn’t exist to make the Turks a recognized minority. The Turkish groups are not seeking that status, and if they did there would not be a parliamentary majority to grant that status.

SH: I have one question I can’t resist asking. Your last name is nearly identical as French president Nicolas Sarkozy. I find that very ironic, that the person who is expelling Roma from France shares your last name. President Sarkozy is the son of Hungarian immigrants to France, is it possible he also is of Roma descent?

Sarkozi: (he smiles and pauses, searching for a diplomatic answer) The similarity in our names is a happy coincidence (later it is pointed out to me that in central Europe, particularly in Hungary, the surname Sarkozy or Sarkozi is quite common among Roma families).

SH: Are you hopeful about the future prospects of the Roma in Europe?

Steven Hill

Sarkozi: Yes, I am.

SH: Professor Sarkozi, thank you for your time, it’s been a great pleasure. Best of luck with your important work.

Steven Hill

Republished with the author's permission from the Washington Monthly.