As crisis over racism deepens in Italy, EU closes anti-Roma discrimination case. By Bernard Rorke

Just as the shocking depth of racism in Italy has been exposed to the world, the European Commission decided that the authorities have no case to answer concerning a decade of virulent anti-Roma discrimination; and that the situation in the squalid segregated camps does not breach the Race Equality Directive (RED). Closing the case confirms that as far as Roma are concerned, the RED is plainly unfit for purpose; and that for too many people, antigypsyism remains the ‘last acceptable form of racism in Europe’.

Racism ‘embedded’ in state and society

This decision comes at a time when the global media is focused on the issue of acute racism in Italy. The spectacularly ill-judged and tone-deaf ‘monkeys against racism’ campaign by the country’s governing football body Serie A was just the latest in a series of scandals. On 7 November, a report covered Brescia striker Mario Balotelli’s resilience and anger at football fans who repeatedly target him with racist abuse; and how he had been previously targeted with the chant “non ci sono negri Italiani” (there are no Italian blacks).

The authors’ research, conducted with hundreds of Italian children of migrants, who recounted stories of everyday imbarazzismi (a mix of embarrassment and racism), found that “race is embedded in the way many Italians look at themselves”. This was followed by poll results in which more than half of the Italians surveyed said that racist acts were either sometimes or always “justifiable”.

On 9 November, 89-year-old Auschwitz survivor and senator for life, Liliana Segre revealed that she is subjected to 200 antisemitic social media attacks daily. Her motion for the creation of a committee to combat hate, racism and anti-Semitism was approved by Parliament, but very tellingly, without votes from the forces of the right, which included Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega.

Race Equality Directive is unfit for purpose

Both Berlusconi and Salvini will have been heartened by the notification we at the European Roma Rights Centre received from the European Commission: following a two-day visit to Italy, the Commission did not find any recent precise evidence that the Italian authorities are “actively directing Roma people to so-called nomad camps”; and that “administrative practices appear to have changed too much for the case to be sustainable at present.”

On top of that, and despite the fact that under the RED, harassment is deemed to be discrimination if the conduct violates the dignity of a person, the Commission has reasoned that forced evictions are not covered by RED. Beyond the contorted reasoning and legalese of the Commission, the EU’s own Fundamental Rights Agency stated that when it comes to Roma “the Racial Equality Directive is not effective”, and called on both the EU and the Member States to reflect on these deficits and remedy the existing situation.

The sounds of silence from Brussels

Despite the Roma-only camps, the Roma-only emergency shelters, despite all the evictions, all the hate speech, and all the discrimination faced by Roma, no action has been taken by the European Commission to signal its discontent with the undeclared apartheid that persists in this large and powerful EU member state. The preferred posture in Brussels has been to defer, deflect and block criticism of Italy.

In April 2017, the Financial Times revealed that the European Commission repeatedly blocked publication of a report recommending sanctions against Italy for mistreatment of its Roma minority, in an attempt “to avoid a damaging public row.”

Back in 2008, when the Berlusconi government declared a State of Emergency to combat the so-called ‘Roma menace’ and announced its intent to fingerprint Roma children; despite widespread condemnation of the government moves as racist and discriminatory, as the euobserver reported, the Commission gave its“blessing for Italy’s Roma fingerprint scheme”. This verdict was welcomed by the far-right head of the Northern League, and Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni, as “highly satisfying”.

In the years that followed, the Commission took no action against Italy, despite mounting evidence that Roma faced extreme harassment that violated personal dignity, and that the conditions in segregated camps and emergency shelters constitute what the Race Equality Directive describes as “an intimidating, hostile, and degrading environment.”

So, the sounds of silence from Brussels came as no surprise in the wake of Matteo Salvini’s declared intent to go after Roma in “a mass cleansing street by street, piazza by piazza, neighbourhood by neighbourhood”. In January 2019, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) repeated its concerns about the climate of racism in Italy, “particularly with regard to racist misleading propaganda against Roma and Sinti indirectly allowed or directly emanating from the authorities”

The European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI) recently called on the new Commission to make tackling racism one of the EU’s top priorities. It would be a mistake to invest too much hope in the new Commission, not least because of the limits of its competences. Responsibility for tackling racism lies primarily with elected politicians inside each of the member states; and even if there was the political will, the Commission could not deliver justice for Roma in Italy.

The far-right must be confronted on the streets, in the courts and in the legislature. The way forward lies in mobilisation against hate and racism, not in EU infringements or resolutions. Tens of thousands of Italians have taken to the streets to counter the hateful nativism pedalled by Salvini and others. The grass-roots Sardines movement, named for its ability to pack piazzas, is growing in strength and pushing back against racist groups and politicians, with an anti-fascist message of solidarity.  That’s where the hope lies.