The ERTF has taken cognisance of the “revised concept paper on the creation of a European Roma Institute”. Since the ERTF has not been asked, officially or unofficially, to comment on this proposal - which we deeply regret – we have, nonetheless, taken the initiative to provide the CAHROM with our views on this proposal.
We would like to state from the outset that the ERTF is in favour of all initiatives which promote the arts, culture and history of the Roma populations. It is however essential that such initiatives have a clear mission and are based on sound policies. This unfortunately is not the case with ERI.
It is certainly true that anti-Gypsyism is the principal cause of exclusion. However history has shown that Roma cultural performances have been widely appreciated over the centuries, yet racism against Roma continued to prevail. Cultural production is neither a substitute to anti-discrimination, nor is it realistic to expect that cultural performance and the arts can fill a gap in the fight against prejudice and exclusion. The Jewish population has produced some of the world’s greatest composers, musicians, painters and scientists but this has not put a stop to anti-semitism nor to the extermination of 6 million Jews.
It is absurd to decry socio-economic efforts. Ignorance, hatred and mistrust are intimately linked to the living conditions of a majority of the Roma and the first step against anti-Gypsyism and eliminating stereotypes is to provide the Roma with decent housing, education and employment and helping them to enter into roles in which they have hitherto not been accepted. The responsibility of developing a positive self-image lies with grass-roots Roma organisations and the support that they are entitled to receive from government at local and national level.
Culture is intimately linked to the life and identity of the community. It can be promoted and assisted but it cannot and should not be directed from above by a political organization. A top-down imposition of a standard culture would deny the rich pluralism of genuine Roma traditions. It is unrealistic to assume that segregating Romani cultural productions in an international institute will have any long-term critical impact. There is, moreover, a risk that governments at local, regional and national level might disengage from supporting Roma culture in the assumption that such matters are best left to ERI and that Roma culture might come to be regarded as detached rather than integrated into the fabric of regional and national culture.
In its proposal ERI makes it clear that it will not limit its role to promoting and assisting but expects to “challenge the status quo through narratives coming from Romani history, culture and experience”. This could lead to an open-ended and random attack against a range of ideas that are legitimate, even if they do not meet with the approval of the founders of ERI and their supporters.
It also claims that the Council of Europe “will benefit from policy advice provided by ERI on all relevant aspects of Roma inclusion policies.” This goes well beyond the promotion and support of culture and, unfortunately, gives the impression that ERI would be dealing with a wider range of matters than culture and the arts.
We are of the opinion that Roma communities are in need of having their own cultural institutions in order to empower the communities, promote and strengthen their culture, language and history. The Romani culture is and must remain the property of Roma communities, and that cultural activity should be led at a national level and not centralised under the auspices of an international political organisation.
Such National Roma Cultural Institutes will contribute to boosting the Roma sense of belonging and pride and raise awareness of the common history and future. In addition, they should have the full support of the Roma communities, NGOs and other structures representing Roma.
The National Roma Cultural Institutes should not replace the political representation of the Roma population; they should be rather seen as institutions with competence in culture, media and art issues. Otherwise we will run the risk of shifting the focus of the political discourse – the fight for emancipation - to cultural issues.
At the international level, we would greatly favour a Roma Foundation with the exclusive vocation of promoting Roma culture and the arts, mostly through financial and strategic assistance, and totally independent of national governments and international organisations and institutions.