May 2014: Towards a European Parliament with more Romani representatives?
This May will prove to be a month with quite some bearing for Europe, filled to the brim with decisions that will spell out its future for years to come. During the 22nd and the 25th of May, almost 400 million eligible citizens, from the 28 countries of the Union, have the opportunity to cast their ballot on who is to occupy the 750 seats of the European Parliament (EP) for the next five years. This is a particularly important moment, amidst the generalised dissatisfaction echoed in the aftermath of the unpopular austerity measures imposed to redress the economically destabilized European countries.
by Cristina Bangau
The heavy cuts in the national spending, affecting vital sectors such as education and health, along with a growing unemployment rate create the fertile grounds for the rise of anti-EU sentiments, exploited by parties on both the extreme right and left of the political spectrum in order to gain popular support. This is how parties like UKIP (UK Independent Party), Golden Dawn in Greece, National Front in France, Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Jobbik (The Movement for a Better Hungary) in Hungary are experiencing a worrying ascension to power, with more than 20% of the votes being expected to go to these EU-skeptic parties, described as a protest-vote against the European Union and the claim for nationally-oriented policies.
The stakes are incredibly high particularly for the numerous minorities living in Europe, for their chance for better representation and less discriminatory practices grow thin among a disenchanted majority which clings to the rhetorics of salvaging an imagined “us” from the depths of the European despair. Eurosceptics, who, at the moment, comprise around 50 members of the EP, are gaining more and more ground (approximately 100 MEPs are expected to fall in this category after the elections), with the promise of a “better Union for all” steadily losing credibility and being replaced by the promise of prosperity possible only outside it, through reinforcement of national borders.
What does the European Parliament actually do?
The 2014 elections sparked countless debates so far, not only due to the challenges posed by the unstable economic climate that the new MEPs will have to tackle, but also because it is the first such event after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December 2009, doubling the legislative power held until then by the European Parliament, and giving it almost full co-decision with the Council, on more than 40 new fields, immigration included, and having the final say on the Union’s budget. Since the members are directly elected, and the seats allocated proportionally (the numbers grew from 736 in 2009, to 751 for 2014), with the declared goal of representing the member states governments, it is argued that it furthers the EU democratization process, and their decisions will have a greater impact on its constituents, even though the turnout has fallen to only 43% in 2009, as it can see in the image, this trend being inversely proportional to the growing mistrust in the EP.
Moreover, the EP will choose the President of the Commission, giving even more weight to the vote of the citizens, setting all eyes on how the new members will cope with the increased responsibility that falls on their shoulders.While this is clearly stipulated on paper, with 380 million people being eligible to cast their vote, a recent The Economist article questions the possibility that the ongoing elections would validate the legitimacy of the Union and, for that matter, of the Parliament. Since the majority of the electorate is expected to adopt a protest vote, with the populist parties being the ones which have the biggest impact on convincing people to have a saying, it is only self-explanatory that the EP gets caught up in an internal contradiction – being composed of members who are militating for less influence over the national policies and legislation.
Even if, at the national level, the MEPs (members of the European Parliament) belong to specific parties, groups, or act as independent candidates, in the EP they tend to be affiliated to four main ideological factions Green, Centre-Left, Centre-Right, and Liberals. Besides the non-attached members, the main political groups are European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), the Socialists and Democrats, the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Greens, with proposals passing only if they are supported by at least two of these groups. With the expected voting rate further dropping to 40%, the polls suggest that somewhere around 70% of the seats will go to the centre-right European People’s Party, the centre-left Socialists & Democrats, the liberal ALDE alliance and the Greens, making this block the main leading force for the next five years.
- PP – European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)
- S&D – Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in Europe (centre-left)
- ALDE – Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (liberal)
- EUL/NGL – European United Left-Nordic Green Left (left-wing)
- Greens/EFA – Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens and regionalists/nationalists)
- ECR – European Conservatives and Reformists Group (right-wing)
- EFD – Europe of Freedom and Democracy (Eurosceptic)
- NA – Non-attached (MEPs not part of any group): 
Who’s afraid of the European far-right?
Still from “Vote!”
The far-right parties in Europe function on opposition, rejecting the EU establishment. A brief description would include attitudes and behaviors that promote Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-semitism, antitziganism, and a great concern with keeping the migrants at bay. A revelatory happening is the recent statement made by the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, Geert Wilders who cut a star out of the European Union’s flag, representing the Netherlands, in front of the Parliament, in Brussels, as part of his campaign. This more or less symbolical performance, which triumphally ended up with the Dutch flag hoisted in front of the cameras, was justified by his desire to take his country out of the EU, and focus on the domestic situation, invoking his duties to take care of his own people. According to Euronews report published on the 20th of May, the Freedom Party was leading the in the polls.
Moreover, once an MEP, he will support the formation of a new political group, along with Le Pen’s National Front, with the purpose to “wreck the EU from inside”. The vote was held on the 22nd of May, with the Netherlands and UK being the first ones. The results are not completely known, and the general results at the EU level will be published on Sunday 11 pm Brussels time, however polls are showing that the clear loser of these elections was Geert Wilders party, with only three seats for the EP, out of the 26 allocated to the Dutch delegates.
A simple message is displayed in one of France’s leading party’s posters, appealing at the same discourse of the national interests at the forefront. While the former leader of the party was once more fined for his overt racist comments when referring to the Roma ethnic group, and suggesting that the Ebola virus would be a very efficient and suitable solution to overpopulation and migration his daughter, currently in charge, managed to refine the approach, in order to gain more support from the youth and the middle class. The party presents the elections under the slogan “Go vote for less Europe!”, for escaping the EU oppressing hegemony. However, they have all the chances to make it to the EP and the consequences of the attempt to ensure France’s liberty, on the overall treatment of the Roma population, with more deportations to come, not only for them, but for the refugees and asylum seekers.
Moving on to the UK, the protagonist of these elections is the Independence Party (Ukip), with a strong anti-immigration rhetoric and invoking the principle of patriotism as an intrinsic rejection of EU and working towards taking Britain to the roads of a referendum that would allow the citizens to express their position on whether they choose to leave the Union, or not, promise reiterated by David Cameron, Prime Minister.
However, the most controversial political group is the Golden Dawn, in Greece. Only recently, Belgium accepted, in an unprecedented move for the European legislation, an asylum claim from Mamadou Bah who received the refugee status in Greece in 2006, having to once again escape after the 2013 attacks of Golden Dawn death squads. Not being shy of admiring Hitler, the leader of the party, Nikolaos Michaloliakos is an openly Holocaust denier and its party may secure more than 15% of the MEPs seats. A similarly radical group is the Movement for a Better Hungary, Jobbik which, despite its well known anti-Roma sentiments, occupied the 3rd place after the Parliamentary elections held in April, and one of its three representatives in the EP being at the moment accused of espionage for Russia. 
Towards a European Parliament with more Roma representatives/ On the dawn of minorities’ representation
Currently, only 15 EPs out of 766 have a ethnic and religious minority backgrounds, in the context in which more than 10% of EU’s population belong to these groups. So, what would a European Parliament with more Roma representatives mean for? Since 1979, when the members started being directly elected, only three Romani people held a seat, with the first one being the Spanish Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia, from 1986 to 1999, followed by the Hungarian Viktória Mohácsi in 2006, and Lívia Járóka in 2005 (now 20th on Fidesz list, the main governing party). However, the prospects appear to be more optimistic, for more and more Roma candidates are being included on the parties’ lists, so chances are constantly increasing.
The most relevant example is the case of Soraya Post, Romani activist, situated on the first position of the Swedish Feminist Initiative. In a recent article published by The Guardian she is described as a sure winner, with real chances of breaking the 4% needed electoral threshold to make it to Brussels. In this scenario, the demand for gender equality and the fight against racism, xenophobia and discrimination would have a better opportunity to penetrate the European debates, with particular advocacy efforts for the recognition of antitziganism as a real existing threat which needs to be urgently addressed. With only 35% of the current EP members being women, the presence of a feminist agenda, that pushes forward the issue of equality regardless of the age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic, social, or religious background, and takes a strong stance on the women’s rights is a welcomed breath of fresh air in the gloomy political landscape of Europe.
Dijana Pavlovic is another example of a Romani woman, vice-president of the Italian Federation of Sinti and Roma, candidate for The Other Europe (L’Altra Europa) – group that would support the Left in the EP – who shaped her campaign around the fight against discrimination and xenophobia, and the promotion of the rights of the Roma and migrants. Born in Serbia and later gaining Italian citizenship, her personal story accounts for the main points she considers to be essential. Germany has the Sinti representative, Romeo Franz as the 12th place on the Greens lists. His candidature was challenging, having received death threats along the way. Despite all this, he intends to be the first German Sinto in the EP, militating for the priority of the minority rights in the EU. In this unfortunate persistent xenophobic environment, where openly stating that just because one is of different ethnic origins and “dares” to advocate against discrimination, racism and better representation at the decision making levels for Roma and Sinti could be a justifiable motive for hate crime, the unflinching devotion for a “Europe for the people” – and I will add ALL the people, just shows that there is still a long way to that ideal, though the time is now to act.
While the elections for the EP should and are not plagued by ethnic votes, the high hopes for more MEPs belonging to minorities is just another talk for better representation. Legislations, policies, budgets are more inclusive when are decided based on more opinions, when all the claims are uttered and heard. Some of the Roma candidates on the lists are people with a long-standing commitment and experience in working with Roma communities and settlements, in their home countries and at the European level, in drafting studies and policies, as is for example the Slovak Stanislav Daniel, currently holding the 8th position on the OLANO’s (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) list, a conservative group, with no MEP during the previous 2009 term. With only only 13 seats allocated to Slovakia, so there are little chances that he will make it to Brussels, this year. However, his campaign, focused on the Roma rights, making their obstacles known to the larger public is a step ahead in Slovakia, where marginalization is still strong, the Roma population being exposed to violent police raids and attacks, and living in ghetto like settlements. One of the Roma candidates is better positioned, in the Romanian lists. Damian Draghici, currently the PM’s adviser on the Roma affairs, is on the 6th place for the Socialists and the Democrats (PSD-UNPR), a very popular group in the Romanian politics, so his case may prove to be worth following, with prospective positive outcome.
The elections are almost over and soon we would know how the EP will look like for the next five years. If more Roma delegates are going to be included, among with other MEPs belonging to minority groups, the chances are that the European Union may gradually develop policies that are inclusive and better informed. It is essential not to ignore that a more just society refers not only at a fair distribution of resources, but it touches heavily upon recognition and representation. At the moment, it looks as though, once more, white Christian Males will dominate the parliament, in a proportion that is much higher than the actual demographic. Is the EP truly an emanation of the people of Europe?
UPDATE 26 MAY:
The results of the elections are in and it is confirmed that Soraya Post and Damian Draghici have secured a seat in the EP. Our warmest congratulations go to both of them.
The breakthrough of the first feminist in the MEP is of utter importance for Europe. Bringing forth the gender dimension at the decision making level is one step closer to better representation of the vulnerable groups. As Soraya Post declared: “You know that we have created history don’t you? We inspire the world. This is the force of love!”