Today we would like to introduce you to our first group of country-specific research papers, investigating how minority claims for political justice are dealt with in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Kingdom and how minorities experience it. Each of the case studies analyses one particular issue affecting recognition and representation of Roma relevant in its national context. Two cross-country studies, one highlighting the history of minorisation in the analysed countries, and a further one analysing the findings of the national case studies, complete the picture.

In Austria, members of national minorities are citizens. By virtue of their citizenship they are thus on equal footing with all other citizens: they are granted a voice in public debates and have the power to influence decisions and processes that concern them. The individual right to non-discrimination is only one of the rights enjoyed by national minorities, who also enjoy collective rights aimed at guaranteeing their existence. Autochthonous Roma living in Austria therefore share the same concerns as other ethnic minorities in Austria, namely recognition of their cultural heritage, maintenance of their language and culture in Austrian society and media. Still, Roma interviewed for this paper identify factors that weaken the position of Roma compared to other recognised minorities. These factors are linked to misrecognition and misrepresentation in the past and have brought many members of the Roma community to the margins of society.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s everyday struggles against discriminatory practices have not only brought Roma to a “journey of self-discovery”, but also to a process of politicisation to be able to fight for change. Formal recognition as a national minority in Austria in ’93 has been vital in acknowledging Roma’s status and in mending ties with society. With the creation of the Ethnic Advisory Board for Roma an official forum for discussion was offered, in addition to funding to support activities aimed at preserving their culture and their rights as a minority. The development of the National Roma Strategy, an initiative that has its origin in EU policies, has further strengthened the national framework. The Roma Dialogue Platform was created to concretely discuss and evaluate the national strategy and provides a valuable mechanism for discussing and raising awareness among key stakeholders on concrete issues affecting Roma.

Roma’s fight for recognition however has not ended there: interviewees highlight how anti-gypsyism and stereotypes are still present in society and still affect the lives of many members of the community. As a group, Roma acknowledge differences, but they also highlight their belonging to a wider community with a common history and similar experiences. They fear that drawing lines, between them might result in weakening their claims for justice.

The low number of Roma involved in institutionalised politics as well as the low number of mainstream political parties concerned with issues related to Roma, are clear indicators of how Roma are still unevenly represented in political life in Austria. Asked about their opinion on minority quotas (one of the ways to ensure a more balanced representation of minorities within state institutions) interviewees stated that Roma identity or Roma origin alone cannot be a category of effectively representing the interests of Roma in institutionalised politics. Even during the interviews the fear came up that the “quota-Roma” might be counterproductive for implementing Roma concerns in mainstream policies, as representation then would be based on “belonging” rather than performance. Again here interviewees raise the importance of (quality) education as a tool to enable a better representation of Roma in politics, and more generally to reach key position in society. They also highlight the importance of role models to inspire younger generations and to change attitudes in the majority. While arguing for integrating Roma concerns into more general policies, Roma claims also encompass the acknowledgement of their different life situation (due their history of exclusion and marginalisation), and therefore for more targeted support for their community.

When it comes to the more specific instruments created to deal with minority issues, the Ethnic Group Advisory Board, the findings of desk research and the interviews concur in stating that both the instrument and its application have its flaws. These flaws refer to the rules surrounding the nomination of the Advisory Board, which are a responsibility of the Federal Government, but also in relation to the tasks of the Board, which are foreseen in the system as a consultative body of the Federal and Provincial Government. It is therefore left to the government to decide if and when to ask for the Board’s opinion, as well as which weight to give to this opinion, thus leaving it to the ability of minority representatives to convince the government about what is best for them. To put it in the words of an interviewee, “they [the Board] have the power to recommend, but decisions will be made by others”. The findings also indicate another critical point related to this body: the Ethnic Group Advisory Board and the Ethnic Minority Act are per definition only responsible for the recognised national minority of Roma. Thus it entails an institutional division in Roma populations and excludes allochthone Roma, which have also partly been living in Austria for generations. The interviewees do however highlight the importance of the Board in making Roma concerns relating to both groups visible and in mediating in cases of conflict with Roma travellers.

Concerning the Roma Dialogue Platform, the findings highlight its importance in fostering dialogue, raising awareness about concrete problems faced by Roma among key stakeholders, and often discussing practical solutions for problems faced by the Roma community. A current example that is being discussed and affects many Roma NGOs is the issue of funding. Nowadays successfully applying for funding requires an increasing degree of specialisation, professionalisation, and bureaucracy. This issue affects many Roma NGOs, which are small in size and often do not possess the staff, resources or know-how to successfully apply, thus hindering the establishment of lively and engaged civil society organisations to support their community. The Dialogue Platform is aware of this problem, and facilitates meetings between civil society organisations and donors to discuss more stable measures to counter-act this trend.

The findings of this research paper show how political representation is intimately linked with issues of recognition and redistribution. It also appears that in the case of Roma in Austria their misrecognition and misrepresentation lies at the core of why they are not duly represented in society.

by Isabella Meier and Maddalena Vivona
written for the ETHOS Project as a Country Study within D5.2