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Europe and its Gypsies

In what seems like a never-ending story, the European Union is at its worst in dealing with nomadic populations. The EU should look to the old Yugoslavia.

The summer's controversy over gypsy deportations in France — with its flourish of heated rhetoric between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and EU Justice Minister Viviane Reding — will not be just a "summer story," if Reding has anything to say about it. Hatred for the Roma — the predominant gypsy group in Europe — is rising in the continent, so she recently announced a European Union-level Roma Task Force to improve the integration of Roma into EU countries, with the idea of finding new ways to ease the tension.

But her speech was vague. She said "more needs to be done," and she called for better use of EU money. She added that Brussels could only do so much. "Policies on education, housing, access to health and employment are in the hands of the local, regional and national authorities," she said. "It is for them to ensure that concrete action is taken in favor of and with the Roma communities."

The relatively sudden arrival of Roma families in Western European capitals, though, has a lot to do with EU politics. When the EU expanded in the 2000s to include eastern states like Hungary and Romania, labor markets weren't automatically thrown open. The older, western governments had until 2011 to let people from the new member states work permit-free.

France opened its doors in 2008. Germany will wait until 2011, but that was such a last-minute decision it amounted to a feint: Roma families moved to Berlin a few months ahead of a previously announced date to lift German labor restrictions, in 2009, and found themselves unemployable. The result was a group of about 80 Roma suddenly begging on Berlin streets.

Of course, the Roma have moved across Europe in similar fashion for centuries, followed by the curses of more settled (and white) Europeans. When Sarkozy decided to clear out Roma camps this summer and send the immigrants back to Romania on "special flights," he was just upholding a long tradition here of singling out Roma for deportation and politically valuable rhetorical abuse. Commissioner Reding criticized him in September by making unsubtle references to the Holocaust, which Sarkozy batted away. The expulsions helped boost his poll numbers.

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

The problem is that life is worse in Romania and other eastern countries where Roma tend to concentrate. Unemployment in Roma towns has soared. Those who flew home from France with €300 (about a month's wages) in their pockets intended to wait for a while — "until the excitement settles down," as Der Spiegel magazine put it in September — and then try their luck again.

Parallels to immigrant workers in the United States are obvious, but the EU is now dedicated to continent-wide freedom of movement and equal rights for all European citizens, so an American-style border wall (for example) would be out of the question.

What might work, ironically, is a careful and picky consideration of the communist-era policies that collapsed with the Soviet Union in 1990. One reason for the dire situation of Roma in Eastern Europe is that social structures they learned to live with during the Cold War have crumbled over the last 20 years. Now jobs and opportunity are so scarce that a once-itinerant people are on the move again.

Most Roma policy in the former Soviet bloc was intolerable. Romania had a disastrous Stalinist program of forced relocation, forced settlement, and penalties for being unemployed; later (under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu) it had a forced program of integration. In Yugoslavia under Josip Tito, though, there was a more open policy that tolerated some traditional nomadism but encouraged the Roma to leave their children in school.

"In areas with large Gypsy communities," Zoltan Barany writes in The East European Gypsies, "a growing number of schools offered Romani as the language of instruction in the first grade to ease the pupils' transition into the educational system."

The result was a comparatively well-integrated Roma population — and even a Roma intelligentsia — in the former Yugoslav republics. Tito's soft tactics left behind a healthier population than the harder policies in the rest of the Soviet Union, and they remain a nostalgic memory for some Roma from the Balkans in today's (much freer) EU.

"We lived in our own villages," Dijana Pavlovic, who was raised in Serbia but lives in Milan, recalled recently to the U.K.'s Independent. "One of my grandfathers was a blacksmith, the other was a carpenter. They were illiterate, but they were settled people: the only time they went traveling was when they had to look for work."

Whether the same problems can be solved from the bureaucratic heights of Brussels, of course, is a totally separate question. The Roma Task Force will present its findings next spring.